September 27, 2011

Rejiggering The Thingamajig And Other Stories and High Frontier

The Book (by Eric James Stone): A Nebula Award winner, Hugo Award nominee, and winner in the Writers of the Future Contest, Eric James Stone has had stories published in Year’s Best SF 15, Analog, Nature, and Kevin J. Anderson’s Blood Lite anthologies of humorous horror, among other venues.

One of Eric’s earliest memories is of seeing an Apollo moon-shot launch on television. That might explain his fascination with space travel. His father’s collection of old science fiction ensured that Eric grew up on a full diet of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. --Bio from Eric James Stone's website

The Game (from Sierra Madre Games):
In the near future, nanofacturing techniques will allow incredible new materials to be built atom by atom. But they can only be built in the zero-gravity and high-vacuum conditions in space. Various private and government enterprises race to establish a buckytube mechanosynthesis factory on a suitable carbonaceous asteroid. To do so, they accumulate tanks of water in orbiting fuel depots, to be used as rocket propellant. Also needed are remote-controlled robonauts to do the grunt work.

The key to success is water in LEO (low Earth orbit). At first, water will be expensively upported out of the deep gravity well of Earth. But for a third the fuel and energy, water can be supplied from Luna, the moons of Mars, or other nearby hydrated objects. Extracting resources at the work site is called In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). Whoever develops ISRU technology able to glean water from space rather than Earth will gain the strategic high ground to make money through exoglobalization. --Board Game Geek Description

The book, as you've probably noticed, is a collection of stories.  I love short fiction and Eric James Stone writes amazing stuff; check out his bibliography.  A number of his stories are also available free online if you haven't read his work before (I have a soft spot for the humorous touch; "Rejiggering the Thingamajig" and "The Greatest Science Fiction Story Every Written" are two of my favorites, but I hate to say that because I want to include a dozen others).  "Resonance" is the first story of his I read; it's about a technical difficulty building a space elevator.  Like so many of his stories, the science is detailed, realistic, and fascinating.

And that's the story that High Adventure reminded me of.  I've never played a space game like this -- it has a level of detail that leaves my inner nerd in awe.  Escaping low-earth orbit is costly and time consuming.  The higher the mass of your rocket, the more fuel it takes to more, but as you burn fuel, your mass drops.  The thruster, robonaut, and refinery patent cards all include nifty diagrams and equations for hypothetically possible inventions.  I haven't included pictures of game boards before, but this one speaks volumes.

Yes, the first time I saw this, my head exploded.  Part of me wanted to flee the room; I had no idea what to do with all those lines.  Going over the rules confused me more.  Then we started playing and it smoothed out.  Soon enough, I'd boosted my solar sail into orbit and was hitting a scientific point of interest for later victory points (one in the inner solar system, of course, as the sail doesn't work so well out by Jupiter).  What with learning how to play, I came home late that night.  I distracted my husband with this shiny picture and talk of the rockets I'd built; he became too engrossed to remember to be grumpy (win!).

I haven't managed to build a space elevator in High Frontier yet, but everytime I see that spot on the board, I think of "Resonance."  Maybe next time I play, I'll manage.  Building a space elevator isn't easy.


September 21, 2011

Ygdrassil and The Redemption of Athalus

The Game (from Z-Man): In Yggdrasil the players represent Gods of Scandinavian Mythology (Odin, Thor, Tyr, Frey, Freya and Heimdall) who fight against monsters (Loki, Fenrir, Surt, Hel, Niddhog and Jormungand) to avoid the Ragnarok (the end of the times).In each turn, a God (player) can perform three actions in the Worlds of Yggdrasil. It may appeal to dwarf who forged weapons, seek the help of elves, send Valkyries seeking new souls of vikings who form the divine army, negotiate with caravans, fighting against the giants of ice weaken the gods but can also use the runes, fire giants manage the lands of Midgard, Asgard to fight directly against the enemy.A fully cooperative game for 1-6 players set in Asgard. All the enemies of Asgard (Hel, Loki, Fenris, Surt, etc) are making their way to Odin's Throne and it is up to the player-gods to stop them from reaching it. Each player-good has a special ability and can do actions from different parts of Asgard. --Manufacturer Product Description

The Book (by David & Leigh Eddings): It would be sheer folly to try to conceal the true nature of Althalus, for his flaws are the stuff of legend. He is, as all men know, a thief, a liar, an occasional murderer, an outrageous braggart, and a man devoid of even the slightest hint of honor.

Yet of all the men in the world, it is Althalus, unrepentant rogue and scoundrel, who will become the champion of humanity in its desperate struggle against the forces of an ancient god determined to return the universe to nothingness. On his way to steal The Book from the House at the End of the World, Althalus is confronted by a cat--a cat with eyes like emeralds, the voice of a woman, and the powers of a goddess.

She is Dweia, sister to The Gods and a greater thief even than Althalus. She must be: for in no time at all, she has stolen his heart. And more. She has stolen time itself. For when Althalus leaves the House at the End of the World, much wiser but not a day older than when he'd first entered it, thousands of years have gone by.

But Dweia is not the only one able to manipulate time. Her evil brother shares the power, and while Dweia has been teaching Althalus the secrets of The Book, the ancient God has been using the dark magic of his own Book to rewrite history. Yet all is not lost. But only if Althalus, still a thief at heart, can bring together a ragtag group of men, women, and children with no reason to trust him or each other. --Inside Flap

An old book and a new board game.  The Redemption of Athalus is a stand-alone fantasy novel packed with the wit, plot, and close scrapes of a longer series.  I'm either a lazy reader or an economical one, but I love the punch of this single-volume story.  Larger-than-life and yet so-human characters struggle to stop the end of the world in a drama of gods and men.  This also neatly describes Ygddrasil.

Ygddrasil is probably one of the hardest co-op games I've ever played.  The resources are tight, the monsters always progressing, and even one wasted turn can spell doom.  No loafers among Vikings, not here, not if you want to win.  As a bonus, it plays six, accomodating a larger gaming crowd, and if the base game isn't hard enough (it is!) there's an advanced version.  Part of the fun -- besides gnawing away my fingernails -- is the interaction as the group brainstorms strategies.  The Redemption of Athalus is likewise full of very different people trying to solve the same problem by utilizing their various strengths.  Their brainstorming is clever (we'll pretend mine is too), often makes me laugh, and always results in a close scrape.  This book also has one of my favorite literary moments, but alas, it's near the end and I wouldn't want to spoil it.

An older book?  Yes, but still as good as the day it was printed.  A new game?  Yes, but definitely worth the effort to learn, especially if you love an epic backdrop.

September 14, 2011

Book and Board Game Match-Up: The Desert of Souls and Asara

The Book (by Howard Andrew Jones):In 8th century Baghdad, a stranger pleads with the vizier to safeguard the bejeweled tablet he carries, but he is murdered before he can explain. Charged with solving the puzzle, the scholar Dabir soon realizes that the tablet may unlock secrets hidden within the lost city of Ubar, the Atlantis of the sands. When the tablet is stolen from his care, Dabir and Captain Asim are sent after it, and into a life and death chase through the ancient Middle East.

Stopping the thieves—a cunning Greek spy and a fire wizard of the Magi—requires a desperate journey into the desert, but first Dabir and Asim must find the lost ruins of Ubar and contend with a mythic, sorcerous being that has traded wisdom for the souls of men since the dawn of time.  But against all these hazards there is one more that may be too great even for Dabir to overcome... --Amazon Product Description

The Game (from Rio Grande Games): Compete with your fellow players for the most beautiful towers. Players take on the roles of famous architects and using their chicanery, try to obtain the best construction parts. With these the exuberant towers are erected. Think ahead, use your tactical sense and it will help you to stay ahead of the other players and thereby become the greatest architect of the country. Exciting construction entertainment for the whole family. --Board Game Geek Description

The Desert of Souls is the kind of ripping yarn I could see being told late at night: it's filled with adventure, danger, and mystery.  Asara's the kind of game that keeps me awake late at night, with finger-biting choices overlaying strategic choices.  These both have a Middle Eastern setting, and even the board color scheme and the book cover seem to match, but it's that late-night component that really makes these two similar.   

The Desert of Souls is fine sword and sorcery, our hero perpetually jumping from frying pan to fire.  It's not just that, of course (I loved the narrator's elegant voice and the refreshingly honorable protagonist) but this story never gave me the chance to lean back, exhale, and stop worrying about the characters.

Asara leaves me with that same weightless feeling in the gut.  It plays a lot like Alhambra, with some monumental differences.  In each round, certain actions can only be taken so many times.  If enough people buy a tower base, for example, then I can't.  If I needed to build this round to score and the building spaces are gone, no points for me.  There's a balancing, figuring out what actions can be delayed and which ones have to be immediate.  Inbetween, there's the nail biting, wondering if another player is going to topple my carefully laid plans.  Reading The Desert of Souls, I'm similarly biting my nails, trying to figure out how they'll get out of this one.  Either one of these is a great adventure.

September 6, 2011

What The Hunger Games Taught Me About Writing

I naively thought I could read three chapters of Suzanne Collin's The Hunger Gamesand then go to bed, but this book glued  itself to my hands and wouldn't release me until I finished the final page.  There are a bushel of reasons why I love this book, but I'll stick to one: it taught me about pacing, and it wasn't the lesson I expected. Apparently my writer-brain still works during sleep deprivation.

The bane of pacing, I'd been told, was description, flashback, internal dialogue and world building asides.  Yet I found all of these in abundance in The Hunger Games.  A conundrum.  As I read, it slowly added up.  Pacing, description, flashback, and internal dialogue that don't add tension slow the pace.  All of these literary tools can be used to increase tension, and thus pacing.  The Hunger Games does this masterfully.

Take for example this meal:

"The supper comes in courses.  A thick carrot soup, green salad, lamb chops and mashed potatoes, cheese and fruit, a chocolate cake.  Throughout the meal, Effie Trinket keeps reminding us to save space because there's more to come.  But I'm stuffing myself because I've never had food like this, so good and so much, and because probably the best thing I can do between now and the Games is put on a few pounds."

If you haven't read the book, this might not mean much.  If you have, it's one more concrete, painful contrast between the poverty Katniss has grown up with and the bounty and power of the Capitol.  She's at their mercy -- they have everything, she has nothing. It also shows Katniss' personality and her desire to survive.  Instead of sulking about her imminent demise or forgetting her troubles in the face of luxury, she's calculating.  Food isn't pleasure or forgetfulness: it's one of the few assets she has.  My sympathy for her jumps.

Consistently, the details Collins gives paints a world of the powerful Capitol and Katniss, the survivor.  The former raises the conflict; the latter makes me care about the conflict.  Without these moments -- description and internalization -- I doubt I'd much care about the action scenes. 

All writing involves balancing, of course.  Description often faces scorn because bloated, bland description is so easy to spot.  Cut entirely, it can leave a manuscript feeling hollow.

September 1, 2011

Two New Reviews Up

I've got two new reviews up at Bookshop Talk!  Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, a very old favorite, and The Shifter by Janice Hardy, a new gem.  If you're a writer, Janice also has a phenomenal writing blog, The Other Side of the Desk, you should check out.