Dreaming of Astronauts and Librarians

On more than one occasion I’ve thought about being a librarian. I’ve read that it’s a terrible field to get into these days; an overabundance of people with degrees in library science (consider a master’s, though the quality of programs, and therefore graduates, is said to be very spotty at the moment) competing for a small number of positions. A graduate program in library or information science would not be a good investment right now.

Of course I have a degree in education already, so I could become a school librarian tomorrow — if someone were to hire me. I trained primarily as a science teacher, but with a few exceptions, any registered teacher can theoretically be hired for any teaching position, even if it doesn’t typically happen in practice.

This is somewhat of an idle thought, and likely will never come to pass. I’m daydreaming. But why? Who daydreams about the exciting world of librarianship?

Frankly, I’m not sure if it’s a question of my love of books or a certain obsession with organization of knowledge. My favourite topic in high school biology was taxonomy, studying and relating different species, phyla, and other taxa. Similarly, I’ve made a point of both ordering and filling in my knowledge of literature, and I suppose I want some application for that knowledge. What better way than to be the living card catalogue for some eager students? (A dated reference; perhaps a living search engine would be more relevant?)

For example, I’ve lately been working my way through some of the major fantasy canon. The bedrock stuff that has influenced basically everything that is being written in the field today. That means not only J.R.R. Tolkien, but C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, et al.

But these twentieth-century writers have their own antecedents in previous centuries. Tolkien’s influences date to Chaucer’s day — works like Orpheus and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. White, with The Once and Future King, rewrote Le Mort de Arthur, also from the Early Middle Ages. C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, certainly must have thought about Milton, and perhaps Dante during his writing, if we’re limiting ourselves only to literary inspirations.

Of course none of this can be understood without a solid grounding in the classics of Homer, Virgil, and others in turn. And it can’t be only me who collects such information and wants to immediately organize a display of fantasy through the ages, to piggy-back on the buzz of the new Hobbit movie, for example.

It can’t be only me, for that matter, who wants to divy up a science fiction section into cyberpunk, steampunk, alternate history, slipstream, new wave, and so forth. Categories were made to be sub-categorized. Historical trends were made to be explicated to interested library patrons, celebrated via promotions and posters and whatnot.

But it’s just an idle dream. Perhaps I will get a chance to run my own library at some point, even for a year or two. But as likely, not. At least I do have some other application for my carefully organized reading: as a literary critic who knows what he’s talking about. That’s not a bad job either, and it’s not even full-time work.

Game Review: Shank 2

In a nameless, war-torn Latin American country, a group of brutal state militia pull over a bus and start waving guns and knives at the frightened people aboard. One approaches a solitary, hulking figure in back who has failed to evacuate the vehicle. The soldier draws a bead with his gun, and promptly loses his hand at the wrist.

This is the opening of the first level of Shank 2. By the end of it, Shank, the main playable character, will have gutted a hundred or more anonymous soldiers, using only a pair of machetes, an endless supply of throwing knives, and a pair of smaller, shiv-like blades. In the glow of the burning enemy base, the bus driver returns, and asks the blood-covered figure if he is part of the rebellion. “What rebellion?”

Yep. Don’t look for deep story here, though the melodrama in this 2-D brawler does have a way of sucking you in. This is a melee version of Metal Slug or Contra, with the violence ratcheted up a couple notches, and the battle system a bit deeper and more challenging. This is the game for the adolescent boy in all of us, and it fills him with glee.

The gameplay includes three main attack buttons, a quick blade attack good for starting off combos, a heavy attack (which varies between selected weapons: machetes, chainsaws, or a sword, for example), and a ranged attack (throwing knives; pistols). Besides this, Shank can grab and throw, pounce, take hostages, juggle enemies in the air.

Boss fights hold to the same core gameplay style but are sufficiently unique to keep things interesting. On the second or third level, I felt briefly overwhelmed by the number of different moves (a rolling attack I thought was oddly placed on the R3 analog stick). Every single button has an assigned function, and more than once I’ve thrown a grenade (R1) when I meant to pounce (R2).

Keeping track of so many unique moves and still managing to perform combos takes a bit of practice. I wouldn’t mind seeing the options slimmed down just a little bit, but I appreciate the potential for better and more advanced techniques for anyone who wants to put the time in.

I also appreciate the near-seamless integration of cut-scenes with gameplay. Each boss fight will allow for one super-attack (with a custom cut-scene) when you do enough damage. But it still feels like part of the fight; the damage bar still stays on-screen.

It’s mindless, gory, over-the-top fun. Way more to it and way more fun than I expected for a 10 dollar download title. If you’re into this sort of thing, I’d say it’s worth a look.

Article first published as PlayStation Network Review: Shank 2 on Blogcritics.

ABCs of Sci-Fi Film, Results

Well, since taking my sci-fi film quiz, the answers have been posted. Actually it looks like he had these up on his Tumblr account even before I made my attempt. So you’ll just have to trust that I really came up with my answers on my own. Let’s correct together, yeah?

A and B correct. C turns out to be Cube. Damn, I guess I thought it was too obscure for him to pick. Too bad. D was Dune and F The Fly. Very famous, but I wasn’t even close to getting them.

G to K all correct. But L was The Last Starfighter. Never saw it. Nor did I see Moon, so it was somewhat of a lucky guess. Nineteen Eight-Four? I keep forgetting the title is properly spelled out and not a number. And The Omega Man? I just wouldn’t have guessed he would have used both that and I Am Legend, which are both remakes of the same original movie (based on the novella by Richard Matheson).

And speaking of Mr. Omega, we have back-to-back Charlton Heston, with my Planet of the Apes answer being, obviously, correct. Q, which I left blank, is something called Quatermass 2. No idea.

R, S, T: all correct. I had no idea for U, even though I’ve seen Universal Soldier (and plenty of other crappy van Dame movies back in the day). And V, it turns out, is V. This seems like a cheat, though, since according to Wikipedia it was a couple of miniseries and a regular television series, never an actual film.

W and X I got right. Y and Z are both a bit obscure, at least to me, representing Yor, The Hunter From the Future and Zardoz.

So, grand total? 15/26, which is a shade under 60%. I pass after all, if only barely. If I had made the poster, I might have made some different choices as to which films to represent. But if I had made the poster . . . well, there wouldn’t be a poster because I lack the graphic design skills.

Game Review: Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2

The 21st century is a wonderful time to be a gamer. Online gaming has become standard with console releases; Japanese titles that would have once been deemed culturally untranslatable now routinely make their way to our shores. This latter is arguably a mixed blessing, however.

I’ve previously covered two games from NIS America (the acronym standing for Nippon Ichi Software), both sequels. Prinny 2 I found to be old-school platforming fun, and the story and humour, while very Japanese, also very funny. Cladun X2 was dungeon-crawling fun — to a point. Both had an exceptionally high learning curve, which I was willing to persevere against in Prinny but not in Cladun.

Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 is also a sequel, also from NIS America, also full of Japanese gaming/manga/anime tropes and general weirdness. The title sequence has still hand-drawn images of all of the main characters in magical girl poses that are bizarrely at odds with the revealing outfits they are wearing (black leather bikinis and other lingerie). These outfits thankfully don’t feature very much in the actual game.

It does feature the girls, though. In fact, there are no male characters in the game whatsoever, excepting sexually indeterminate dragons, rats, and other monsters. Our heroes are mostly CPU candidates, living in a world called Gamindustri and featuring magical guardian “mascots” that look like game discs.

The world is divided into nations that are essentially stand-ins for Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft’s current-generation consoles (plus one for the never-produced Sega Neptune). A clever conceit and probably the most interesting thing about the game, though there’s not much satire of the real-life corporate entities, or if there was, it went over my head.

I wondered whether NIS’ inability to take themselves seriously might be a problem with an RPG, where story matters. But of course, their wildly successful Disgaea series has already shown that RPGs don’t actually have to be sombre and serious. Of course, they do have to be entertaining, which requires a certain degree of sense and witty dialogue.

Where to draw this line is at least somewhat a matter of personal taste. The fact that the first game was popular enough to merit a sequel, and the existence of a limited edition version of this game which runs for several hundred dollars may answer that question, at least for a certain contingent of hard-core fans.

So why not get right to the gameplay?

Besides the usual HP (hit points), registering the health of a character, action in battle is determined by AP and SP. AP is used up each turn for attacking, using items, special moves, and simply moving. SP is used up in special moves and in regular attacks (which involve three different types of button combinations), but only when a combo is initiated. Attacking enemies will slowly build SP back up, while AP is only refreshed after time has passed.

SP is essentially your magic points (or specialty points) while AP is like your action bar or timer. The system is strictly turn-based, but movement is free, defined each turn by the radius of a circle.

This seems logical but digitalizing basic actions along with both magic and health made it difficult for me to keep track of everything and plan strategically. Frankly, I rarely knew when I was held back from performing a certain action because I needed to attack to build up my SP, or if I had to end my turn without attacking so that my AP would carry over.

Just as the simplest actions were needlessly complicated, true depth was lacking. For the first few hours battles were basically hack and slash. The challenge level then began to rise as boss HP rose along with damage dealt, but there wasn’t a whole lot you could do about that but a) power-level and find rare equipment, or b) spend half an hour or more slowly shaving off a boss’ life while constantly healing and hoping he doesn’t unleash a super-attack.

In one sense this is extremely classic game design, complete with the high-rising difficulty, but on the other hand, haven’t improvements to role-playing game mechanics accrued over the last couple of decades? The general strategic uselessness of available support magic and special attacks compared to simple power-levelling had me wishing for more balance.

For me, NIS games have shined for their gameplay rather than creating an emotional connection to the story. Though I had some fun with it in a killing-time sort of way, my lack of real engagement with the battle system made it difficult for me to keep pushing through as the challenge level really started to ramp up.

You probably know if what I’ve described is the sort of thing you’re into, but if you’re not sure and haven’t played the original, you might want to rent it first.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 on Blogcritics.

ABCs of Sci-Fi Film, A Pop Quiz

Via Tor.com, the best SFF blog out there (yes, better than io9), a poster with the ABCs of science fiction film. The poster was designed by a guy named Stephen Wildish, who does lots of cool stuff like that. The thing is, though, the titles aren’t actually included. So, knowing the genre and the first letter, how many films can one recognize? This is the challenge.

I’ll accept that challenge, publicly, despite knowing I’ll never get a passing grade without cheating. I’ll note that, following standard practice, “the” does not count as part of the title for alphabetical purposes. Self-imposed rules: No Googling or web browsing of any kind until the quiz is finished.

A: The Abyss

B: Blade Runner (not really sure how, but I can’t think of any other “B”s and Ford was blondish in that movie, I guess)

C: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (or Cube, possibly)

D: The Day the Earth Stood Still (cause it kind of looks like Keanu Reeves, I guess?)

E: The Empire Strikes Back


G: Godzilla

H: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I: I, Robot (I’m sure it’s Will Smith, and based on his outfit, this is the right movie, but he did another sci-fi movie starting with “I” — I Am Legend, duh)

J: Judge Dredd

K: King Kong

L: Logan’s Run (I’m basically sure this is wrong, but I’ve got nothing)

M: Moon (total guess)



P: Planet of the Apes


R: Running Man

S: Solaris (changed from Space Odyssey based on colour palette)

T: Tron



W: War of the Worlds

X: X-Men



Some of these seem like they should be easy, but I’m just not getting them. Considering the ones I left blank, I have a max score of 18. Considering how many I’m unsure of, though, I could certainly do worse than 13/26, i.e., a failing grade. I’ll check the results when he gives them out and share them in a post.

Can I recommend other sci-fi freaks take a crack at this?

Portfolio Update

I’ve updated my portfolio, which has been stagnant since almost the launch of the site, over six months ago. I’ve added a couple of new articles to my feature writing spotlight, and swapped out one of the reviews, as well.

Besides that I trimmed the other section and gave some specific links to my technical writing, though I’ve done less of it lately.

Now I really need to update my LinkedIn profile as well; I really need to find some way of better organizing my employers as a freelancer. At least my regular outlets need to be separated from the current grouping, where I simply list every place I publish under a single job title.

Sigh. One of these days.

Book Review: Starman Jones

Baen Books has been releasing new editions of Robert A. Heinlein works for over a decade, at a steadily increasing pace. So far this has included about half of the famed Heinlein juveniles, originally written for Scribner between 1947 and 1958. The latest from Baen is Starman Jones, first published in 1953.

Like other RAH reprints from Baen, Starman Jones includes an introduction from William H. Patterson, Jr. putting the novel in the context of the time and with respect to Heinlein’s other works. I already knew from Patterson’s biography of the grandmaster that Heinlein was consciously influenced by Horatio Alger, a nineteenth-century writer of adventure stories for boys.

Like Alger, Heinlein strove to provide moral training for the young people (especially young men) of his generation. The recurring moral theme of Heinlein’s juveniles (and many of his later adult novels as well) includes such prescriptions as “hard work pays off,” “honesty is the best policy,” and “study hard,” amongst others. By all accounts, Heinlein truly lived and espoused these values, and such universal lessons lend these books greater staying power than some of his more overtly political works.

One thing I didn’t realize, however, was that Heinlein had taken the basic plot for Starman Jones from a real-life event. If you wish to avoid all spoilers, you’ll want to skip over this next (quoted) paragraph, and Patterson’s introduction, as well. In Heinlein’s own words (as quoted by Patterson from the Heinlein Archive at UC Santa Cruz):

“This book was written without an outline from a situation in the early nineteenth century. Two American teenagers took off in a sail boat, were picked up by a China clipper, were gone two years — and returned to Boston with one of them in command.”

Heinlein took that same basic situation and turned it into space opera. At the novel’s opening, our hero, Max Jones (his precise age isn’t given but he seems to be in his late teens) is a farm boy, working the land hard each day to provide for himself and his widowed, but irresponsible step-mother. When she comes home with a new husband, known by everyone in town as a drunk and a lout, announcing that they’ve sold the farm, Max decides his filial duties are over. He leaves the farm with not much more than the clothes on his back and a vague plan of getting into space.

Ultimately, Max finds a friend in the older and wiser Sam, a roguish character with a penchant for bending the rules, but a good heart, and the two of them scam their way onto a starship. Through a series of unlikely but plausibly-written events, Max manages to rise higher and higher in the chain of command. When disaster strikes, his talents turn out to be crucial to saving the ship, its passengers, and his fellow crew members.

Heinlein’s earliest novels did read very much like early “boys adventure stories,” with two-dimensional characters and pulp-novel situations. Books like Rocket Ship Galileo and Space Cadets weren’t bad, mind you. But they weren’t great. By the time he was writing Farmer in the Sky and Starman Jones, however, Heinlein was in the groove.

RAH didn’t apologize for a certain degree of formula in these stories, an update of Alger’s from a century earlier: a young man from a modest background, through the virtues of hard work, a bit of luck, and (uniquely, in Starman Jones) perhaps taking some liberties with the truth to get his foot in the door, eventually proves his mettle and resourcefulness and saves the day. Hey, it’s a good formula.

I haven’t read any of Horatio Alger’s books, but other comparisons spring to mind. A young lad on ship, starting at the bottom rung, eventually saving the day — sounds like Treasure Island, albeit without the treasure. In fact, Max Jones bears more than a passing resemblance to the young Jim Hawkins, each having lost a father, each finding a friend and role model in someone of dubious morals, Sam Anderson being Heinlein’s stand-in for Long John Silver.

Yet, though less obvious than the Robert Louis Stephenson comparison, I found myself thinking more frequently of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn during Max’s interstellar adventures. Max Jones is, like most of Heinlein’s scrupulously honest young protagonists, very much more of a straight-arrow than the uncivilized Huck ever was, but he still finds it necessary to lie in order to get a fair shot. For the protagonist of a Heinlein juvenile to profit by something like falsifying shipboard documents is unusual enough to be worth mentioning, and reminds me more than a little of Huck, who had little need for civilization or rules but had little trouble determining right from wrong.

Mark Twain had something to say in his book about the difference between morality and law, particularly with respect to slavery and discrimination; Robert Heinlein had a similar bone to pick as well. The SF Grandmaster’s targets were the unions who, he thought, sought to trample the downtrodden, and make the rich richer. Standing in for them in this novel is an exclusive hereditary guild system, making it almost impossible to get into space if you don’t know the right people. (This is a major plot point in the story, forcing Jones’ hand in the deception.) It seems to me that Heinlein, politically very different in many ways, sought the same sort of social equality and freedom that Twain had, some 70 years earlier.

And it’s these universal themes that make him still so readable. True, the technological aspects haven’t aged well. On the one hand Heinlein describes precision, supersonic bullet trains that never touch the ground. On the other hand, ship’s crew perform calculations by hand and feed the answers into antique computers for interstellar jumps.

Yet I’ll wager that most modern readers will suspend their disbelief on these points. The well-realized characters and smooth plotting represent this writer at his best. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about most of the ideas in this novel; it’s just a solid adventure tale (with a subtle moral undercurrent) that’s as fun to read today as it was 60 years ago. But with no larger goal than that in mind, Heinlein wrote a classic.

(Baen Books, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2012) The Green Man Review