29 December 2008

Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell's tale of the Agincourt campaign follows the career of a longbowman who gets made ventenar (sergeant in command of twenty archers) during those events. As fans of Cornwell may expect, he has a some diabolical enemies - some English, some French - who he crosses paths with on and off during the course of the novel. The times are brutal, and so is the story, especially his many little revisionist takes on the romanticized version of the story (e.g. Shakespeare's).

Most importantly, contains all the adventure and historical detail that you would expect. Great stuff.

26 December 2008

Music that I got in the primary gifting period.

I'm not going to say much about these, just list them. They are good! Look for them on youtube or something! Also, Graham Reid's elsewhere has lots of good reviews of most of them and usually a song you can listen to (I found out about many of them from his mailing list/RSS feed originally, and recommend both). Also, strictly speaking some of these were actually gifted to Make Tea Not War but I'm sure she won't mind sharing. Ordered by the order of the pile of CDs:
  • Frightened Rabbit: Midnight Organ Fight
  • Calexico: Carried To Dust
  • Samuel F Scott & the Bunnies on Ponies: Straight Answer Machine
  • David Byrne & Brian Eno: Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
  • Luke Buda: Vesuvius
  • Flogging Molly: Swagger, Drunken Lullabies

The Star Fraction by Ken MacLeod

I re-read this on a whim, seeing it on the library shelf, and was not disappointed. I think this may be his best novel - it's certainly so densely packed with ideas it seems liable to implode at any point. Fantastic. Should be on any serious science fiction fan's must-read list. Probably the must-own list, really.

For those who are late to the party, it follows a few characters, but centrally Moh Kohn, a mecenary with a hacked together gun/AI who discovers as part of a routine 'protect university science department from anti-technology terrorists' job that he seems to be a key part of some kind of backup plan to save British (or possibly global) socialism that was put together by his father (a genius computer programmer, and author of the OS/internet substrate of the computers used in the time of the novel) and seems to have suddenly activated itself. A combination of interesting and plausible politics and technologies make this work much better than many similar attempts. Also, there's a really good sprinkling of stuff that is just damn cool (the way that Gibson can also do so very well).

Rollback by Robert J Sawyer

An interesting, bittersweet novel about early life extension technologies. The main plot centres on a married couple. She was the person who deciphered the first message received from extraterrestrials, but is now 87. A response is received and she is offered a new (and phenomenally expensive) rejuvenation treatment to aid her efforts to decipher the alien's second message. She accepts, but only on the condition that her husband also gets the treatment. Unfortunately, it only works on him. The novel is from his point of view and explores the various effects that this has.


13 December 2008

Spindrift by Allen Steele

Reliably good hard sf space opera from Steele. This is in the Coyote universe but only loosely related to the Coyote stories, which I had been finding a little bogged down in their own history and characters recently, so this was somewhat refreshing. It's a first contact story, and a fun enough representative of the type.

The characters are fairly one-dimensional, and the bad guys in particular seem motivated by little else beyond the needs of the story to have some villains. On the other hand, the exploration and hazards of space sections more than make up for those shortcomings.

The Last Green Tree by Jim Grimsley

A strange kind of blend of science fiction and fantasy novel, dealing with magic that is allegedly some kind of sufficiently advanced technology (although it is hard to see how it is). In any case, the characters are strongly drawn and interesting, and their attempts to deal with the clash of magicians which incidentally wipes out most of a world.

It's sort of a follow on from The Ordinary, in that it is set in the same world and answers certain questions raised in that novel, but the connections are largely incidental.

04 December 2008

Hot Topic by Gareth Renowden

A nice general introduction to climate science, what is happening to the world, and what specifically is going to happen to New Zealand. The major topics of the IPCC reports are covered here, with a bit of expansion on areas of interest to New Zealand laypeople (or at least that is how it comes across - I must admit to only having read the summary versions of some of the IPCC reports myself).

03 December 2008

Mouse Guard RPG: Read-through Review

The pre-order for this includes a downloadable pdf, so I spent yesterday evening reading the whole thing. It captures the feel of the comic very well - there is an emphasis on teamwork, on being small creatures in a big dangerous world, and on making hard choices about what you beleive in.

Oh yeah... quick aside for those not familiar with the comics... mice are like people, they have a little medieval society and talk and stuff. All the other animals are basically just animals but as mice are tiny they are effectively monsters. The mouse guard are the mice who protect all the other mice from these dangers.

I'm not familiar with any of the other Burning Wheel games, so I can't give any comparison to those, but it's certainly a lovely system. The basic way you make tests is simple (roll a pool of six sided dice, 4-6 are successes, you need X successes where X  is picked by very following instructions in the skill description). The more elaborate kinds of tests and things you can do with them (teamwork, use of weapons and tools, etc) build on this base in straightforward ways.

There's also a real focus on getting into play fast - there are premade characters and missions in the book to start you off, and every kind of animal you might meet is statted out (even a bear, although I hope never to see a mouse patrol facing one). Every session each player gives their mouse a goal to try and acheive by the end, as well as the mission you have as a team. The GM sets out to put some obstacles in the way of the mission and goals. Things get interesting due to the failure mechanic. When a player fails a test, it isn't just 'do you succeed or fail'. Instead, the GM decides whether your mouse succeeds, but takes a condition (like now it's Tired, or Injured, etc) or fails, but there is a Twist in the story.

Adding a twist to the story allows the GM to bring in entirely new obstacles or sub-plots, and seems like it will make running a session go pretty smoothly while maintaining a sense of unpredictability and excitement.

The other neat thing is that after the mission is done, the players get a formal turn. This is basically the guards' down time, where the players get to finish up their goals, recover from the mission, and stuff like that. There's some limitations on how much you can do and you still have to make tests to get things done. Having this be directed by the players is a cool idea. I like it.

There's some overarching shape to the stories too - the seasons have a very pronounced impact on the day to day lives of the mice and the missions that the guard will need to do. There are a few ways suggested to use these changes to structure your games. All of them look pretty good (e.g. X sessions per season, X weather changes per season, etc). Over this there's an even bigger structure where the life of your patrol will probably come to a close as the characters retire or die.

Getting back to the point about running the game, it seems like it will fit into my preferred mode of 'think up a basic idea about what will happen in five minutes before the session and then run with it'. The characters have a whole lot of flags written in to the character sheet as well - friends, enemies, things they beleive in, things to roleplay each session, things they are good at, personal quirks, etc. These all have mechanical reasons to be incorporated into play, as well, so they'll be sure to be used.

There's plenty more in the rules, but I think it's premature to say more before play. At this stage, it all looks like it will be great.

Lastly, it looks absolutely fantastic. It is filled with David Petersen's art - some from the comics, some new (all stunning) - and printed in full colour. It's been printed through Petersen's publisher, so I expect it will come out the same quality as the comic collection, i.e. significantly more fantastic than a pdf read on a laptop screen.

The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

This book is about the language of thought - how the mind frames concepts about the world internally. Pinker uses both psychology (mainly evolutionary) and linguistics to pick apart what the language of thought is comprised of. This approach is plausible, to the extent it works, but limited given our current state of knowledge. Still, there's plenty of Pinker's usual interesting psychological facts in here.

I found the first part of the book pretty hard going. It's fairly dense and dry, and the bulk of his thesis gets set out here. The second part is lighter, and significantly more readable, and has him applying the thesis to particular things - metaphor, swearing and the use of implication in speech.

Overall, a good read.