Review: Mass Effect: Foundation Volume 1

Mass Effect: Foundation Volume 1
Mass Effect: Foundation Volume 1 by Mac Walters

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The first issue of the Foundation series plays it safe. We get a few backstories for Kaiden, Ashley, and Wrex, set just before the events of Mass Effect 1. There’s a narrative thread that ties all of these stories together in the form of a Cerberus agent that was involved or at least adjacent to the events of the first game, though she never appeared in the game itself.

I’m conflicted on this book. I enjoyed the art style, with its bold colors and clean look. And it was fun to see more of some of my favorites, particularly Wrex. On the other hand, revisiting the events of Mass Effect 1 . . . again . . . makes the universe feel small to me. It reminds me of how the Star Wars expanded universe had to focus on every single aspect of the things that appeared in the movies, and only rarely deviated enough to create entirely new stories and scenarios. I feel like that’s happening here as well; it’s been a very long time since we dealt with Saren the renegade Spectre.

While it’s nice for a bit of nostalgia, there are absolutely no surprises in store aside from learning a bit about Rasa, the Cerberus agent. We know about Kaiden’s biotic school troubles. We know Ashley loses her squad. It’s a prequel story that just checks off the bullet point that it’s supposed to hit.

Foundation Volume 1 plays it safe, and while it doesn’t commit any blunders or flaws (the action is engaging enough and the characters act and sound like their video game versions), hewing so closely to the foundation (heh) of the first game leaves very little room to grow. I’m not sure who would really relish a book like this; even as a completionist and lore nerd, I found it to be rather unnecessary.

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Review: In the Beginning…Was the Command Line

In the Beginning...Was the Command Line
In the Beginning…Was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s entirely possible that “Neal Stephenson thinking about stuff” might be one of my favorite genres of non-fiction.

This little book is an oddity. It’s a seventeen-year-old look at the state of computer operating systems, but it’s also essays, musings, and other thoughts. Hence my earlier point: it’s Stephenson thinking about stuff.

And for anyone else, that would be a criticism. But Stephenson is fascinating. You can tell by his work that when he becomes interested in a topic, he throws himself headfirst into it with the velocity of a BASE jumper. He does his homework. And his research. And his dissertation. He tends to know what he’s talking about.

Even so, what’s the value of a book that, in timeline terminology relative to the speed of computers, is somewhere between cave paintings and the emergence of cuneiform tablets? Certainly, these observations have no bearing on the state of computers and operating systems today. Google doesn’t exist at the time of these writings. Apple hadn’t yet made its triumphant return under Steve Jobs. Microsoft was the evil empire with an antitrust case to fend off. It was a different time.

And that’s why I enjoyed this book so much. It’s a little time machine, a look back at the heady days of the late nineties, just as this whole “computer thing” was starting its ascent into the stratosphere. It was written about a year after I received my first computer, which caused me to reflect on how things were back then. More than once, I marveled at Stephenson’s observations as I read his book on a tablet in ebook format, with that strange little thrill that yes, sometimes these gadgets really do feel like the future has arrived.

This book, more than anything, is a glimpse at the digital zeitgeist from those bygone days. Apple fans can remember the dark times while Linux fans can enjoy Stephenson’s musing on how it really is the superior tool for superior minds. Windows fans . . . well, get ready to endure some light griefing. Hey, it was the 90s. Early versions of Windows really were pretty bad. The blue screen of death and the three fingered salute (ctrl-alt-delete) didn’t become early memes for no reason. If you’re interested in the pop side of computer history, here’s a book that will take you down memory lane (assuming you were alive in the 90s). Stephenson’s a masterful storyteller, so you know that it’ll be worth it.

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Review: Mass Effect: Homeworlds

Mass Effect: Homeworlds
Mass Effect: Homeworlds by Mac Walters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After the last few forays into the Mass Effect comic series, I’d started to wonder if they weren’t for me. I’m happy to say that Homeworlds, the fourth entry in the series, is an excellent change of course and gets things moving in a direction that I really enjoyed.

We get some backstory scenes for four of Mass Effect 3’s crewmembers: James Vega, Tali, Garrus, and Liara. It was interesting to see how the game universe handles the incredibly deep number of choices, as depending on how you played through Mass Effect 2, it’s possible that up to two of these characters will be gone by the time Mass Effect 3 starts. The story handles it by varying where in the narrative they take place: one is pre-ME 1, one is pre-ME2, and the others are just before ME3. I won’t specify which are which, to avoid spoilers.

It’s great getting to spend time with these characters. The crew members are my (and I imagine most players’) favorite aspect of the Mass Effect universe. It’s fun getting to spend some time with them and to see them operating on their own, outside of the long shadow cast by Commander Shepard (your player character).

There’s so much going on here, however, that it’d be almost impossible for a non-game fan to piece together what’s happening. Normally, that kind of thing rubs me the wrong way; my rule of thumb is that a video game story should be able to stand on its own. But it was so much fun getting to reconnect with a few of my favorites and I enjoyed the stories so much that I’m willing to overlook it.

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Review: North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors

North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors
North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors by Daniel Tudor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just the facts here, ma’am. Despite its slim size, author Daniel Tudor manages to pack in a lot of details about contemporary life in North Korea as the regime under dictator Kim Jong Un begins to reveal itself from the shadows of his father. Which isn’t to say that this new dictator is better than the previous one (the Kim is dead, long live the Kim, as they say), but it’s an updated look at the world, similar to how Barbara Demick’s seminal work “Nothing to Envy” showed life under Kim Il Sung.

Tudor’s book is considerably more academic than Demick’s, with more of a look from a top-down overview perspective rather than an individually focused narrative.

One thing that troubled me through the first half of the book was a sense of neutrality towards the regime, as though Tudor didn’t want to take a stance on the issue of North Korean human rights violations. Fortunately, that feeling was more a creation by the structure of the book, since the early chapters are more focused on the lives of average citizens. Tudor has plenty to say about the regime when it comes to discussing the political camps and the high-level purge of officials when Kim Jong Un succeeded his father.

This book is good for the academically interested or as a follow-up if you want to further your knowledge after reading a gripping defection memoir. It’s not going to go after your heartstrings in the same way, but that’s not its goal. This look at the lives of North Koreans in the modern day is, above all else, a reminder that these are real people we’re reading about, real lives we’re discussing from the ivory towers on our distant shores, and not cartoon characters in any sense, no matter how much mass media likes to say otherwise whenever North Korea declares it has discovered unicorns or cured hangovers.

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Review: Halo and Philosophy: Intellect Evolved

Halo and Philosophy: Intellect Evolved
Halo and Philosophy: Intellect Evolved by Luke Cuddy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I knew this one was going to be a pop approach to philosophy, being about an FPS video game franchise like Halo, I was hoping that its discussions would be more focused on the lore behind Halo itself. We are, after all, talking about a franchise that was first introduced in a mysterious email chain that quoted T. S. Eliot. The Halo universe can be pretty mythic and deep when it wants to be.

Although a few of the essays do approach Halo from a lore perspective, the majority are more concerned with the philosophical implications and considerations of the actual Halo gameplay. For me, this was somewhat less riveting. There are a few interesting discussions, but overall, my general feeling towards these sorts of arguments is a sort of inward eye rolling. I’m reminded of my philosophy undergraduate days and how my peers could turn absolutely anything into a philosophical debate, even things that seemed rather pointless. This might be indicative that I wasn’t really cut out to be a philosopher, but as this is my review, I’m free to hold to it. But I digress.

The most redeeming aspect of this book is the fact that it’s indicative of the overall progress video games have made as a medium; that we’d ever have a book discussing Halo and philosophy is a sign of progress. That said, I remain skeptical that one can really glean any deep philosophical insight from playing Halo multiplayer. The attempts to bolt things like Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” argument onto a Halo deathmatch feel more like an attempt to play to the reluctant reader category, the sort of person that might be enticed towards philosophy if it comes in a tasty Halo-flavored coating. But even for reluctant readers, there are other books I would recommend instead; “Sophie’s World,” in particular, which was the book that hooked me many years ago.

Overall, we’re left with a somewhat interesting book. It doesn’t do anything wrong, but it also doesn’t manage to really excel. The arguments here aren’t going to surprise a dedicated philosophy reader (some are telegraphed enough that you’ll be able to predict them). And while I did like it enough to finish it, I’m not sure to whom I’d recommend this book. Three stars.

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Review: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story
The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I haven’t picked up a North Korean defector memoir in a while, so I was pleased to see this one getting high marks and a heap of praise from my fiancee before I started. Even though this is my 10th or 11th defection account, it continues to fascinate me how each one, despite having a few similar milestones (crossing the border into China, trying to blend in, and eventually making it to permanent sanctuary) still manage to be as unique and intricate as the people experiencing them.

Hyeonseo’s story is markedly different from the many other accounts of people pushed to such desperation that defection was the only remaining option. One could almost call her an accidental defector, in that she made it to China originally just to see it for a few days before returning home. But once she was there, circumstances made it so that there was no going back and from then on, she had to negotiate the fallout of that decision.

There are three aspects of this book in particular that make it supremely compelling; the first is that Hyeonseo makes no secret that she came from a life of relative privilege compared to many other defectors. (Privilege, of course, being a relative term compared to Western lifestyles). Second, most of the story is focused on what happens to her after crossing the border; her attempts to integrate into China and eventually, her attempts to bring her family across the border as well. It’s fascinating to see what it’s like for those on the other side, who worry and wait and negotiate and risk so much to help those trying to cross.

Finally, Hyeonseo’s writing style is superb. Her story is told with a taut, gripping pace and has enough cliffhanger chapters and twists of fate that you (and I hate using this phrase, but it really is the most applicable) “can’t put this book down.” There’s an energy and pace to this story that crackles like a great thriller novel, but the fact that this isn’t a story, that this all happened to a real person makes it that much more compelling.

I’ve read a lot of North Korea defector memoirs and I’ll doubtless read many more until this humanitarian crisis is resolved (hopefully within my lifetime). Each one is remarkable in its way, but there are a few that stand out as books that I feel everyone should read. I’m happy to say that “the Girl with Seven Names” deserves a place in those ranks. You should read this book.

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Review: The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why
The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why by Amanda Ripley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not only was this a great, well-written read, but it’s full of information you’ll want to keep in the back of your mind at all times. If there was an emergency at your work, how would you respond? What would you do? Can you visualize what might happen? Would you be embarrassed by overreaction if the fire alarm goes off? Would you know what to take with you from your desk?

Ripley covers a wide variety of disasters, scenarios, and topics, from physiological responses to the nature of heroism, those who risk their lives for strangers. Most evocative are the narratives provided by survivors of various disasters: 9/11 survivors, embassy hostage survivors, human stampede survivors, and more.

There’s a tendency for self-aggrandizement in these stores, but author Amanda Ripley never indulges in such things. It’s a very appreciated aspect of her writing.

Most importantly, Ripley doesn’t lead her readers to a feeling of helplessness or fatalism. Throughout the book, her research and writing emphasizes that survival is affected by many factors, and some of the most important factors are mental preparation and readiness.

Having recently moved into the path of a future major earthquake, it’s on the back of my mind that a major disaster may occur in my lifetime. Reading this book helped me come to terms with that and it made me think more about what I will do, should that happen. This is a book that I think should be a must-read for everyone, because there is nowhere in the world that doesn’t have some sort of disaster to contend with, even if it’s something as local as a housefire. As a survivor of a housefire myself (albeit a small one), I give my stamp of approval on her work.

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Review: Mass Effect: Invasion

Mass Effect: Invasion
Mass Effect: Invasion by Mac Walters
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Mass Effect graphic novels continue to be interesting, though like book two of the series, I don’t feel like this book is essential reading. The first book set an incredibly high bar with its focus on what happened to Commander Shepard between the prologue of Mass Effect 2 and the main story. It also focused on Liara, one of my favorite characters, and it was just a great story to boot.

This book focuses on Aria and how she lost control of Omega Station, which is something that becomes a sidequest focus in Mass Effect 3. And while Aria herself is an interesting character, the line this story has to follow is basically a tightrope. There’s very little room for deviation. We know Aria’s going to lose the station. We know we’ll help her take it back. It makes it hard to really feel invested in the struggle. This might also be due to a general ‘meh’ feeling that I have towards Omega itself as a plotline, as the Omega downloadable content (DLC) missions were fairly lackluster.

Still, although this book doesn’t excel, it’s good as a straight-up comic book tale of kicking ass and cool battle art. I really love how biotics are depicted in the comics; even with the hard sci-fi approach that the Mass Effect universe takes, biotics are shown as these incredibly cool space wizards. It’s also been one of my laments about the game narrative, that it can’t be more of a plot point if my Commander Shepard is a biotic (which he always is).

In conclusion, we have a solid, serviceable story, but one that won’t go on to impress. It doesn’t meet the high bar set by its first predecessor, but there’s nothing here that’s absolutely wrong either, the way the novel “Mass Effect: Deception” was so horrifically flawed. That’s one of the fascinating things about the Mass Effect story universe; its tie-in materials have ranged from the amazing to the awful. “Invasion” falls solidly in the middle, and so I don’t mind telling diehard Mass Effect lore aficionados to give it a look even as I tell more casual fans that they’re safe giving this one a pass.

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Review: Halo: New Blood

Halo: New Blood
Halo: New Blood by Matt Forbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the best Halo novels I’ve read in a long time; maybe even my very favorite. It helps that it’s a story about one of Halo’s most likeable side characters: Sergeant Buck, originally from ODST, and now a squadmate in Halo 5. Buck is voiced and modeled by Nathan Fillion, an iconic figure to geeks everywhere and his character is basically a pitch-perfect translation of Malcolm Reynolds moved into the Halo universe. And it works perfectly.

Author Matt Forbeck either has the uncanny ability to mimic those around him, or he binged on Firefly episodes and Fillion’s other work while writing this book. You can hear Fillion’s voice in these pages and it’s excellent. The story itself is very human and focuses on the themes that make the Halo universe the most compelling: duty, identity, loyalty.

The story is told out of sequence, which is interesting as it creates a strong sense for how Buck (the main character and narrator of the story) thinks. We get a quick recap of the plotline of ODST, which is interesting, check in with some old comrades (which is interesting and also heartbreaking), and see how exactly Buck transitioned from ODST to Spartan-IV.

The best aspect of this story, however, is that it succeeds where almost all franchise tie-in novels fail: you don’t have to be a Halo fan to enjoy this book. It stands on its own; if you’ve never played a Halo game, you can still enjoy this story. It doesn’t rely on the reader having a degree in its own lore; if you’ve never played a Halo game, you’ll understand the difference between ODSTs (elite, but thoroughly human) and Spartans (human supersoldiers) and even the different classes of Spartans.

Most of all, it’s a human, character driven story. The ending, which I won’t spoil here, really did catch me off guard and caught me right in the feels. That’s a rare achievement for most books focused on space wars and future soldiers, let alone a video game novel.

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