All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Space.  The corporate-dominated rim is populated by humans, augmented humans, computer systems and constructs.  All of which can communicate via the feed.

A team of scientists exploring a ringed planet has hired a security unit for protection.  SecUnits are armed security constructs with some organic parts.  Armor.  Helmet plate.  Energy weapons built into their forearms.

Humans control the constructs.  They tell them where to go and what to do.  A governor programmed within their code ensures that they follow instructions.

At least that is the plan.  But one SecUnit has managed to hack its governor, making it a rogue.  It does as instructed, because it doesn’t want the humans to discovered that it has free will.  Given the opportunity it will hang out in the cargo hold and pick from the almost 35,000 of hours entertainment it has downloaded.  It just wants to be left alone.

Sure, it will perform its job.  It’s been leased by the Company to the scientists.  It will respond to emergency situations and keep its clients safe.  But it doesn’t really care.  No one really takes its good advice anyway.  Heck, it’s not like it is the one who has the experience protecting people.

“SecUnit” is how the humans refer to it.  But it knows its true name.

Murderbot.

All Systems Red is Book 1 in the Murderbot Diaries series written by Martha Wells.  It received the 2018 Hugo Award.  So far five titles chronicle the escapades of Murderbot.  The sixth is due out in spring 2021.

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The Outer Worlds Video Game

guest post by Wesley B

2019 has been a good year for AA developers – studios that fall somewhere between small indie teams and big corporate juggernauts in terms of budget and labor power. In September, Spiders released Greedfall, a better BioWare game than BioWare itself has released lately. Now, Obsidian has done something similar with The Outer Worlds – a better Fallout game than Bethesda’s own Fallout 76 (and, for that matter, some might say, better than Fallout 4). Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s followed Obsidian’s output over the years. The studio is responsible for some of my favorite games of all time: Knights of the Old Republic II, Alpha Protocol, the Pillars of Eternity series, Neverwinter Nights 2, Tyranny. Most relevantly to The Outer Worlds, they made Fallout: New Vegas for Bethesda, a game that remains many fans’ favorite entry in the Fallout franchise.

Critics, however, were less kind to New Vegas. While there was a strong favorable consensus around the narrative (particularly the level of freedom and player choice), the gameplay was more hit or miss, and the experience was riddled with bugs on release. These technical issues stemmed mainly from the fact that New Vegas was made using Bethesda’s rickety Gamebryo engine, on a tight Bethesda-imposed deadline (the game was made in 18 months; for perspective, Fallout 3 took four years to develop). It seems a tad unfair, then, that Bethesda tied Obsidian’s bonus to the game’s Metacritic score – a benchmark they fell short of by a single point. In light of this history, it’s easy to view The Outer Worlds as Obsidian thumbing their nose at Bethesda. And as I said above, the game does fill the Fallout-shaped void present in gaming since 76 bombed. The Outer Worlds is its own beast, though, not just a reskinned Fallout game, and deserves to be judged on its own merits.

To begin with, let’s get the similarities out of the way. Like the modern Fallout games, The Outer Worlds is a first-person shooter/role-playing game hybrid with an emphasis on exploration and dialogue. As you reconnoiter the world and chat with its inhabitants you’ll quickly find your journal filling up with side quests. You can talk your way out of conflict, sneak around to avoid it, or confront it head-on with ranged or melee weapons. There are locks to pick and computers to hack in order to gain experience, loot, side quests, and lore. When you level up, you’ll be given skill points and perks to distribute as you see fit. You’ll be presented with morally ambiguous decisions to make that will affect the world and how the people in it treat you.

Some people point to the Tactical Time Dilation (TTD) as a similarity, even going so far as to call it knock-off VATS. In my experience, though, the similarities between the two are strictly superficial. VATS in Fallout stops time (halting you and your companions and opponents in your tracks) and allows you to flick between targets, and fire as many shots as you have action points for. TTD, on the other hand, doesn’t stop time, but simply slows it down significantly, allowing you to aim and move freely until the TTD meter depletes. TTD also allows you to analyze your enemies and target different locations to proc various status effects, like knockdown, stagger, blind, and so on. As someone who relies on VATS to get myself through Fallout, I actually prefer TTD – it feels much more fluid.

The most obvious difference is to be found in the setting. Both games take place in the distant future, but Fallout explores a post-nuclear apocalypse America, while The Outer Worlds takes us to a whole new solar system, the Halcyon Colony. Halcyon is under the complete control of the Board, a holding company comprised of executives from the colony’s various founding companies. While both franchises use their settings to critique the structural shortcomings and moral failures of late stage capitalism, the extraterrestrial setting of The Outer Worlds allows for a much greater variety in flora, fauna, terrain, technology, and – perhaps most importantly to those of you who are aesthetically inclined like I am – color palette (I adore the Fallout games but sometimes it’s nice to see colors other than dull browns and greys).

The fact that you traverse an entire solar system means that The Outer Worlds has you visiting, unlike Fallout’s expansive open world (on a single, interconnected map), a variety of separate, enclosed, discrete locations. It’s also a much shorter game than the typical Fallout experience, though of course the actual length varies greatly depending on how much side content you do, how thoroughly you explore, and so on. These changes might be negative for some people, but I actually appreciated them. Obsidian, lacking the overhead of Bethesda, knew they couldn’t match the scope of a Fallout game, so chose instead to opt for quality over quantity. The smaller maps sacrifice breadth for depth, and are filled to the brim with content and details, making them feel incredibly vibrant. The shorter storyline meant the writing was focused and well-paced, holding my interest throughout. Most importantly, it left me wanting more – I can’t wait to make a new character with different skills, experiment with new playstyles, and see how the game responds to different choices.

The Outer Worlds is available at the Davenport Library on the PlayStation 4 and XBox One platforms.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

guest post by Wesley B

I feel sorry for my co-workers that had to catalogue Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth. How do you categorize a book that does all it can to resist labels and push boundaries? On the bright side, that means Gideon has something for nearly everyone: space travel for science fiction fans, magic for fantasy fanatics, skeletons and other undead abominations for horror enthusiasts, romance for – well, romance readers. The characters are primarily young adults, but the content and themes transcend the YA label. The cover and content are pulpy, but the prose is literary. There’s plenty of humor, but Muir treats her characters and their problems with the gravity they deserve. After all, the stakes are higher than life and death – they’re life and undeath.

The story is told from the perspective of the eponymous heroine, Gideon Nav, an indentured servant in the Ninth House. It’s Gideon you see on the striking cover, clad in all black, her face covered with skull paint and aviator shades, walking away, sword drawn, from an explosion of skeletons. Her fiery red coif gives the cover a splash of color; similarly, her incandescent personality lends levity to the novel’s gothic, often grotesque proceedings. The book’s opening line, the most memorable I’ve read this year, is a masterclass in narrative table-setting: “In the myriadic year of our lord — the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death! — Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.” This simple declarative sentence immediately introduced me to Gideon and her world, and had me dying to learn more about them. Even when I was finished reading, that desire stayed with me; unlike many of her fellow authors of genre fiction, Muir never gets bogged down in the expository weeds of worldbuilding, instead letting her colorful characters stay in the driver’s seat as the plot moves propulsively from one scene to the next.

Gideon is a sort of inverted Harry Potter figure, leaving behind a hostile home for a new life in a place filled with wonder, danger, and people who know far more about it than she does. Unlike the boy wizard, however, Gideon isn’t so much called to adventure as dragged on it against her will, when her lifelong frenemy Harrowhark, daughter of the Ninth House’s leaders, foils her escape attempt. In doing so, however, she strikes a bargain with Gideon: if she accompanies Harrow to the First House and serves as her cavalier (essentially a bodyguard/personal assistant), where the aforementioned King Undying (a God-Emperor who should feel familiar to Warhammer 40k fans) is holding tryouts for new Lyctors (basically immortal lieutenants with vast necromantic powers).

Upon arriving at the First House, Harrow and Gideon meet their counterparts from the other seven Houses. My main criticism of Gideon is that it’s difficult to keep track of a dozen-plus characters dumped in your lap all at once, especially when only a few of them are as interesting or well-developed as our heroines. Thankfully, in its second act the book turns into an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, culling the cast significantly (plus there’s a handy list of dramatis personae at the front of the book). It’s during this section that Muir fleshes out her world’s magic system, one of my absolute favorite parts of the book. You’d think a book based entirely on necromancy wouldn’t be that varied in the magic department, but you’d be wrong – each House has its own special variety of death magic, from summoning skeletons to siphoning souls. What’s truly impressive, though, is that these differences in magic aren’t merely superficial. Instead, each necromancer’s style of magic reflects their personality.

In the third act, Muir gives readers the climactic action scenes and revelations of mysteries that we expect, and executes both with aplomb. Ultimately, however, what kept me reading was Gideon and Harrow. As they struggle to work together, they learn not just about the secrets of the First House, but about themselves as well. The ending is explosive and intimate, hilarious and heartbreaking, a tearjerker and a cliffhanger all in one. I can’t wait for the sequel to come out next year; in the meantime, I might have to re-read this one.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Guest post by Wesley B.

In the author’s postscript to The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu writes about his special talent: “Scales and existences that far exceeded the bounds of human sensory perception – both macro and micro – and that seemed to be only abstract numbers to others, could take on concrete forms in my mind.” As an English major who struggled just to get through the entry level math and science requirements in school, I find this talent special indeed. However, I think Liu is selling himself short. What’s truly remarkable is his ability to use this talent to write a hard sci-fi novel that not only appeals to a numerically-illiterate person like me, but to get me to share the “ineffable, religious feeling of awe and shock” he experiences.

Of course, as impressive as these talents are, they would not alone be sufficient to hold my interest for 400 pages. Fortunately, Liu has a good grip on plot and character as well. In fact, the way the book begins – with the riotous, bloody “struggle session” of a physicist during China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution – you could be forgiven for thinking we had made a mistake shelving it in the sci-fi section and you were reading an historical thriller instead. It actually takes quite a while for the book to build up to its primary interstellar conflict. For those of you who are hardcore sci-fi fans, this may seem like a bummer, but rest assured, it’s worth the wait – Liu didn’t become the first Asian to win a Hugo Award for Best Novel for no reason.

And anyway, there’s plenty of value in the lengthy build-up. The book alternates between the perspectives of Ye Wenjie, daughter of the physicist killed in the opening scene and herself a renowned astrophysicist, and Wang Miao, a nanomaterials researcher. Ye’s scenes take part mostly in the past, and although they serve primarily as exposition and world-building, I still greatly enjoyed them. The Cultural Revolution is a fascinating period in history rife with political intrigue, and seeing how it affects Ye – in terms of both her external circumstances and her inner life – is truly compelling.

Wang’s scenes, meanwhile, take place exclusively in the present, and have a lot more of a narrative drive to them. His sections have an almost Stephen King-like quality to them, both in their unsettling strangeness as well as their power to leave me unable to put the book down. After receiving an unexpected visit from a joint military-police task force (led by Shi Qiang, a vulgar police officer whose gruff exterior belies his Sherlockian powers of observation and detection, and easily my favorite side character in the book), peculiar things begin to happen to him. Soon he’s embroiled in a plot involving numerous shadowy organizations and a truly bizarre virtual reality video game. Eventually, of course, Wang and Ye’s stories converge, leading to a final act that is truly a tour-de-force of storytelling.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

Have you heard of Hank Green? Hank is the brother of prolific young adult author John Green. Hank is a genius in his own right though: cocreator of Crash Course, Vlogbrothers, and SciShow. Hank has branched out into fiction now! In his debut novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thinghe has created an intriguing story about a young woman somewhat content in her own peaceful life who becomes an overnight celebrity. Her sudden celebrity is part of a much bigger, stranger, and weirder situation that anyone in the world could possibly comprehend.

April May is stumbling home from work in the wee hours of the morning when she runs into a giant sculpture that seems to have just popped up in the middle of the sidewalk out of nowhere. Delighted – and confused – by this discovery, April does the most logical thing that she can think of: she calls her friend Andy, a local vlogger, and guards this sculpture until he comes with his video equipment. April and Andy decide to make a video with this expertly crafted artwork that she has aptly named Carl. Carl is a glorious piece of craftmanship – a 10-foot-tall Transformer-looking sculpture covered in a suit of samurai armor. After shooting this video, they stumble to their respective homes where Andy uploads the video they shot to YouTube.

Events quickly spiral out of control. The next day April wakes up to a very popular viral video and a rapidly changed life. Andy is understandable overwhelmed as he calls April to report that their Carl isn’t the only Carl. Carls have been discovered in dozens of cities all over the world. They all seemed to have popped up at once with no organization or government claiming ownership of their construction or arrival. April is now considered to be the first person to have had contact with a Carl and thus becomes the center of an immensely intense and ever-growing international media spotlight.

Luckily April has some pretty strong friends and family in her corner. (Whether or not she acknowledges their usefulness is another matter altogether.) These individuals have to fight against April’s growing ego as she believes that she is the only person who could possible figure out the Carl situation. After all, she found the first Carl. April struggles to balance her new fame, old and new relationships, her identity, and concerns over her safety as people quickly realize that the Carls are even more not what the public thinks. April tries to put herself at the forefront of Carl research and becomes even more of the face of the Carl movement as people learn more and more facts about the Carls. People all over the world question the Carls’ existences: why, what, who, etc. April and friends soon realize that the Carls may want something from the people of Earth, but figuring this out may tear them all apart for good.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green is an impressive and surprisingly relevant read when compared with today’s society. This book takes on issues of social media fame, conversations, and calls to arms. It also talks in great detail about how the world in general, and also people at an individual level, deal with change, fear, and the uncertainty that change can bring. I really enjoyed the way that Green builds April from a nobody to an immensely popular celebrity. That juxtaposition between her former and current selves was fascinating as it really showed the dehumanization and other-worldly qualities the general public thrusts on people in the public eye.

I enjoyed this book! Check it out and let me know what you thought about it in the comments below.


This book is also available in the following format:

Vox by Christina Dalcher

This book was all over reading lists before it even came out. When Vox was released, the hype grew even bigger. What I discovered when reading reviews of this book was that people either really loved or didn’t like it. I firmly fall in the ‘love it’ category and I hope you all like it as well.

Vox by Christina Dalcher runs in a similar vein of The Handmaid’s Tale as another example of a specific segment of the population being silenced/put into service by a different group. While reading this book, I noticed that I was growing increasingly agitated at the restrictions placed on women.

Jean McLellan is a cognitive linguist. Happily married with four children, Jean lives a pleasant life. Her husband Patrick is the science advisor to the President and seems to have an inside track to what’s happening. With the rise of the ‘Pure’ religious movement, Jean quickly realizes her basic freedoms are starting to be taken away. When the ‘Pure’ movement succeeds in infiltrating the government, Jean knows she’s in trouble.  She saw the signs, but failed to respond appropriately. Women representation in government is decreasing, the ‘pure’ religion is gaining traction, and female freedoms are being lost at an increasing rate. Jean did nothing. Her friends and family warned her and pleaded with her to do something, but Jean continuously believed that America would never go very far. She was wrong.

One day, all women were fitted with a bracelet snapped around their wrist that worked as a word counter. This permanent bracelet limited them to 100 words per day. 100! ALL DAY! That’s it. Don’t even try to go over 100 because each over will result in severe consequences. The ‘pure’ movement controls all. Religion has a higher say than science. As a result, Jean, as a linguist specialist, is very worried about what would happen to women the longer they are silenced and limited to 100 words.

Having somewhat adjusted to this horrible new normal, Jean is startled when she is approached by the President’s men saying her professional services are required. Meeting with the powers that be, Jean is told that the President’s brother has suffered a severe brain injury that impacts his ability to use language. Jean, plus some of her previous work colleagues, are needed to research a way to help him. Obviously Jean leverages her unique skill set to negotiate a deal in her favor. Jean is now in a position to help the female population, but has to do so sneakily. Complications ensue (obviously). Once Jean is reunited with her previous colleagues, they must race against time to solve the problem presented. Jean’s past plays a large role in her decision to behave the way she does with the overall message in the book being: use your voice before they take it away.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Artemis by Andy Weir

Artemis is the second Sci-Fi novel written by Andy Weir. I loved Weir’s first book, The Martian, and also the movie based on it, even though I am not typically a Sci-Fi reader. I thought it was smart and funny, with just the right amount of suspense. That is just how I like my books. Therefore, I was eager to read Artemis. I checked out the audiobook version, read by Rosario Dawson (she’s great!).

The main thing Artemis had in common with The Martian is that the characters are living somewhere other than Earth. Beyond that, they are very different. Artemis is still smartly written, but I didn’t find it quite as funny. Artemis is grittier.

In The Martian, an astronaut named Mark struggles to survive alone on the red planet after a mishap leaves him accidentally abandoned by his research team. I know, it doesn’t sound funny at all. But Mark is a character with a very good sense of humor, despite his dire situation. I rooted for him the entire time. By contrast, Artemis is a futuristic moon colony populated by many humans (some live there, others are just visiting). Artemis’ protagonist, Jasmine, is a young, jaded crook. She starts out as a petty smuggler, but things escalate, intensely and quickly.  Maybe other readers would feel differently, but I kept hoping that she would get busted for her antics. Still, every misstep she takes is entertaining.

A self-described “space nerd,” Weir describes the scientific principles of living in outer space in a way that is pretty easy for a novice to grasp. I’m no expert, but it sure seems like he knows what he’s writing about. I recently read the Moon Base Alpha series by Stuart Gibbs with my 10 year old son, and many things are echoed in those books. For example, EVA (Extravehicular Activity) suits are described almost exactly the same in both books, by the two different authors.

I have since started reading Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. It is rather amusing to see how Sci-Fi writing has changed over the years. Who knows? This may compel me to read more Sci-Fi / Fantasy as time goes on .

Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check-in

Hello Online Reading Challengers!

How is your March reading going? Are you still scrunching up your nose at the idea of science fiction? Try a movie! They’re like an adventure story, only with lots more makeup! Here are some ideas to get you started:

Mad Max: Fury Road starring Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy is a non-stop action, can’t-catch-your-breath, edge-of-your-seat survival story. But beyond all that sand and all those crazy people, there’s a lot of humanity.

Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) is a “blade runner”, stalking genetically replicated criminal replicants in a chaotic society that is nearly impossible to tell what’s real. The new film takes place 30 years further into the future and a new blade runner (Ryan Gosling) and his search for the former blade runner.

Her. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. Is it possible to fall in love with an Artificial Intelligence? What happens when the AI believes it has outgrown you and wants to “break up”? It’s a question that hits closer to home in this age of Alexa. Quirky, touching and cautionary.

Tired of all the scarey, dystopian visions of the future? Then go for Star Trek, which presents a future that, while we’re still not perfect, at least we haven’t blown up the Earth (yet) and have managed to live among the stars. You have lots to choose from – television series, movies, original, spinoffs, alternate universes.

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

guest post by Teague Shosh

There is no shortage of post-apocolyptic books to read these days and looking at the books I’ve read over the past several years it is clear that I have an obsession a healthy interest in all things dealing with our planet earth in the future.  There is something so captivating about a story describing the collapse of earth as we know it and the subsequent reconstruction of a new society rising from the chaos—all from the safety of my twenty-first century life.

My brother recently asked if I had read the book Mortal Engines that Peter Jackson has based his next movie on and suggested I check out the trailer.  I usually try to avoid seeing even a smidgeon of a movie based on a book until I have read it, so I grabbed a copy of Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve and dug in.

Mortal Engines is the first in a four part series, The Hungry City Chronicles.  It is a post-apocalyptic steam punk novel that takes place hundreds of years after the Sixty Minute War destroyed earth and made the land an unstable place to live.  Cities are now giant machines run by steam, rolling on wheels, and searching for increasingly scarce resources to survive.  These Traction Cities rule most of the earth, except for the Dead Continent (North America) and pockets of resistance can be found in The Anti-Traction League who wish to stop the movement of cities and slow the consumption of earth’s remaining resources.  Technology is almost non-existent and scavengers hunt for relics from the past to build on their knowledge of robotics, mechanization, and computers.

Mortal Engines begins on the city of London as fifteen year-old orphan and aspiring Historian Tom Natsworthy witnesses an attack on a prominent citizen and suddenly finds himself tossed into the Outland.  Tom struggles to make his way back to London with the help of Hester, who is also alone, but angry and seeking revenge.  The two unlikely friends embark on an adventure that uncovers a secret plot by London that changes everything Tom thought he knew about his city and the world.

Although the book was originally published over fifteen years ago, the idea of cities on wheels battling for survival was new to me and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Reeve’s innovative take on this genre.  After reading the descriptions of traction cities, with level after level stretching to the sky reflecting the increasing wealth of its citizens the higher you go, it is easy to see why Peter Jackson decided to turn the book into a movie.   I watched the trailer when I finished the book and it is clear that Mortal Engines is going to provide a beautiful visual experience when it comes to theaters at the end of this year.  Before then, you should read this entertaining book to find out more about Tom, Hester, and a host of other colorful characters surviving on a very different sort of earth than the one we live on today.

 

The Return of the Doctor

Hello Fellow Whovians!

I am happy to report that the long wait is over – Doctor Who returns to BBC America on Saturday April 15! Hooray! This will be Peter Capaldi’s last season as the Doctor and Steven Moffat’s last season as the main writer and showrunner, plus there’s a new companion this season. Lots of changes coming for our favorite Time Lord!

Of course, change is nothing new for Doctor Who – the show is brilliant at reinventing itself season after season, changing to keep up with current tastes yet remaining essentially at its core the story of the Doctor, a survivor and explorer of the Universe, zipping around in his time traveling TARDIS (it’s bigger on the inside!), chased by Daleks and Cybermen. And who is not opposed to stopping and helping various aliens and cultures (and time periods) on his journey, always with a faithful companion or two in tow. There’s a lot of humor in this series, but there’s also a lot of depth and heart.

Doctor Who has been a mainstay of British television since it premiered in 1963. When the original Doctor, William Hartnell became ill and could no longer work, the producers came up with the idea of having the character “regenerate”, allowing a new actor to take over. This turned out to be a brilliant move, keeping the series running almost continuously since then and allowing each actor to bring his own interpretation and personality to the show. The show slipped in popularity, ending in 1989 but was revived 2005. It’s been embraced by old and new fans and is now enjoying some of it’s greatest popularity.

Interested in jumping aboard this crazy train? (It’s tons of fun) The library has DVDs of all of the series including the originals. I recommend that you start with the “modern” series by watching a season when a new Doctor is introduced – the Ninth Doctor (series 1), the Tenth Doctor (series 2), the Eleventh Doctor (series 5) or the Twelfth Doctor (series 8). This way you are introduced to the “rules” of this series at the same time as the new Doctor, who is just as confused and bewildered as you are as he adjusts to his new body and gets back his memories. There are also the Christmas episodes (a British Christmas is listening to the Queen’s Speech in the morning and watching the Doctor Who Christmas Special in the evening!) and the excellent 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor.

The library also has novelizations, graphic novels and fan guides. It’s a fandom that just keeps giving!

So, here’s a question that can set off endless debates: who’s your favorite Doctor? I love Ten (played by David Tennant and most people’s favorite) but Eleven (Matt Smith) is my favorite. (Actually, the TARDIS is my absolute favorite character!) Who is your favorite doctor? Favorite episode? (“Vincent and the Doctor” maybe, or “Blink”?) Favorite villan? (Weeping Angels? The Silence?) Join the conversation!