My 2018 SciFi/Fantasy Reading In Review

I didn’t really care much for science fiction/fantasy until a ‘holy shit, this is so good moment’ when finishing the Three Body Problem series last year. That’s when the reading binge started. Science Fiction & Fantasy still gets a bit of a bad reputation of being made for young adults – but I believe the reverse. I appreciate them now much more than I did as a teen.

Science Fiction is beautiful because it is set in a world we don’t know – a world that only comes alive from an author’s humongous effort of internally consistent world building. They are designing a world that doesn’t exist yet, with rules humanity hasn’t quite figured out. Often times truth becomes stranger than fiction, but their imaginations help us prepare for a changing world.

Fantasy is no longer just about the dragons and mages and dwarves and elves (though those elements don’t necessarily take away from a great book). It explores the how humans would behave when approached with higher powers and unknown truths. It tells the story of individual doggedness or cowardice, treachery or integrity, all simply in a new world.

For all its philosophical and sociological merits, Science Fiction & Fantasy (SFF) are also simply fun. Stories include space travel, AI, gravity manipulation, catapulting rocks from moon to earth, talking to gods, killing gods, and much more. That we can live vicariously through the imaginations of so many authors is a real luxury in this prolific era.

I’d happily recommend nearly all of the ~30 or so books I’ve read this year. I’ll start with the top 5, and move on to the rest below:

My Top 5 in 2018

Entertainment quality is always a function of when you consume it, and in 2018 these are my reads that stood out to me the most:

1. The Divine Cities (City of Stairs, City of Blades, City of Miracles)
Robert Jackson Bennett

I really don’t know how to explain the book so here’s a list of thoughts:21825528

Murder mystery. Religious insurgency. Fantasy with a democratic political system for once. Huge nordic killer secretary. Main character is diplomat and her ex-boyfriend is now a gay millionaire with hip problems. City built on magic but the magic disappears… or is the magic actually there? And that’s just book one. Book 2 is even better as it stars a grumpy old woman who’s also a retired general grappling with atrocities she committed back in the day. Book 3 features the killer secretary.

Each book in the series has its own endings, and the books are several years apart. But Book 3 really closes out the whole thing in a way you can’t miss.

 

2. Stories of Your Life and Others
Ted Chiang 18626849

Ted Chiang’s collection of short stories are sharp, imaginative, and just well written across a variety of styles. I had to re-read the entire collection one week after finishing because it was just that good. From the beautiful flagship story “Story of your Life” (source for the 2016 movie Arrival) to a world where people consider equalizing society’s perception of beauty in “Liking What you See”, Chiang’s short stories are a great way to plug into a world of imagination. Full review here.

 

3. World of Five Gods #1 & 2 (The Curse of Chalion,  Paladin of Souls)
Lois McMaster Bujold

If you had told me a god-fearing feudalistic fantasy society sounds lame, I would have agreed. The Curse of Chalion proved me wrong.

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It all starts with a broken man (don’t they all, these days?). It is about a broken man slowly gaining his voice against the powerful lords that had left him to the enemy. He’s terrified of meeting his betrayers in a social setting, but builds this voice through a desire to protect his new princess/queen as her secretary. Oh and there’s this gravitational curse that makes things difficult for everybody.

The sequel, Paladin of Souls has its own pacing that is equally thrilling, and totally weird. This involves a middle-aged empty woman going on a pilgrimage, getting the hots for a sexy zombie soldier, and proceeding to unravel all sorts of weird stuff. You must read the first to even remotely enjoy the second, but I think they are both worth a solid read.

 

4. Star Wars: Thrawn
Timothy Zahn

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Star Wars can get whatever childish reputation it wants, but the stories of Thrawn and Arhinda Pryce are intriguing, satisfying, and foreboding. Zahn tells us two stories of imperial newbies making their way up the political ranks of the empire through diplomacy and war strategy. Arhinda begins her descent into a brutal mindset and the willing betrayal of loved ones to do the Empire’s dirty work. Thrawn, on the other hand, taps into his genius and military experience in the previous war to realize his potential as straight-shooting Admiral. Both are great human stories. Full review here.

 

5. Rendezvous with Rama
Arthur C. Clarke

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If you are only going to read one scifi book – don’t read this one. There are much funner ones out there. But if you want to take a break from political drama or epic adventures, Rendezvous with Rama gives us the nature documentary with just a dab of mystery and suspense to keep the pages turning. As a set of astronauts explore a mysterious country-sized object, they discover a land that is beautifully elegant but deceptively treacherous. This has the #5 spot because there is simply nothing else like it.

 

 

The “Really Good” books

I don’t know how to rank these, so I’ll categorize them instead. I think all of these were enjoyable and expanding in their own way. A lot of the science fiction here is written in the “golden age of science fiction” between ~1935 to ~1970 with the big three: Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. Looking past the way society is portrayed, they all had rightfully great ideas. Then came Gibson with Neuromancer and Stephenson with some crazy ideas. 

The industry feels like it had a bit of a lull with all its dystopias, but it is now gearing up faster than ever. (I have no evidence that this isn’t biased by the recency of my interests, but I *think* it’s true). With GRRM, Sanderson, RJB, Jemisin, the modern wave of books are relatable, gritty, and ultimately enable us to expand our imaginations. Here are the other books I read this year that I really do like. 

Fantasy World Building

  • Warbreaker (Brandon Sanderson) – You really can’t go wrong with Sanderson. And you can eat color in this one.
  • Foundryside (RJB) – new book was a solid story. Thievery and objects that have coding and coding abstractions all stemming from some crazy old magic.
  • Mistborn: The Final Empire (Series, all 3) (Brandon Sanderson) – Perennial ending world, social classes, cool magic system, brainless zombies, tall nerd great stuff from Sanderson. (full review)
  • The Way of Shadows (Brent Weeks) – Magical Assassins and an unstable assassin teacher.

Futuristic Society

  • The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson) – Nanotech 3D printers gone wild.
  • The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (Robert Heinlein) – AI-assisted moon revolution.
  • All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1) (Martha Wells) – Awkward rogue robot who hacked himself “off the grid” decides whether to stay awkward save his human “friends”.
  • The Caves of Steel (Robot, #1) (Issac Asimov) – AI taking our (detective) jobs.
    This is a very different Asimov compared to when when he wrote his famous Foundation series.  The Caves of Steel doesn’t have the sheer scale of his older books, but makes it up in a creative plot and much more developed characters.

Futuristic War

  • The Ghost Brigades (John Scalzi) – Brain-accelerated special forces with infant minds in adult bodies. In space. Second book in “Old Man’s War”
  • Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein) – Blasting bugs as part of a militaristic society. Also Mobile Infantry mech suits jumping one mile at a time blasting bugs. Sounds cliche now but this was the first of its kind in 1959.
  • The Forever War (Joe Haldeman) – Time relativity creates a defensive technological advantage and forgotten soldiers for civilizations lightyears apart. Similar scene as Starship Troopers but it’s lesson is the opposite, published in 1974.

Other

 

The OK Books

I wouldn’t not recommend these books, but I think they disappointed a little bit.

  • American Gods (Neil Gaiman) – This book is expansive, well-researched, and uniquely American. Something about it felt weird – maybe it felt more like a TV series than a fantasy novel.
  • Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation (Multiple authors) – Chinese science fiction short stories. Great ideas from promising Chinese authors. (full review)
  • Sabriel (Abhorsen, #1) (Garth Nix)A young girl suddenly inherits her father’s responsibility of navigating and banishing monsters to the underworld. Great worldbuilding, relatively basic plot – good YA fiction.
  • Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1) (Iain Banks) – a great adventure & worldbuilding but feels like a Han Solo running around, messing stuff up, and walking away as everything explodes behind them.
  • Second Foundation(Foundation #3) (Issac Asimov) Just like the rest of his foundation series. ultra-intellectual characters duking it out in a psychic chess match. (full review)
  • The Poppy War (R. F. Kuang) – Chinese post-war history piece where psychedelics help you summon gods. Decent idea but is a bit *too* trope-y and takes too much from high school history books.

 

What’s on the docket?

There are so many books out there that building a repertoire of Scifi/Fantasy is a multi-year effort. Reddit has a solid poll of top series here that serves as a solid guidepost. So far sitting in my Kindle are…

  • Seveneves – Neal Stephenson’s book about new life – this has been highly rated by some people and finally got around to buying it! Then there’s Anathem, Crpytonmicon, etc. but I’m going to pace out my Stephenson.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula le Guin is a genius and now that I write this, I should read this.
  • Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb’s series apparently is a great adventure.
  • The Wheel of Time – a 14 book epic that might be tough to get started.
  • The Player of Games – Apparently better than the first in the series. We shall see.
  • Permutation City/Diaspora – Apparently Greg Egan books are extremely technical and well-researched.
  • Red Mars – DNF 50% – Brilliant book, brilliantly researched and imagined but ultimately aimless. 
  • Red Rising – DNF 10% – Hear great things about it
  • Stranger in a Strange Land – DNF 60%

 

I don’t read fantasy/scifi. But if I had only one book to read…”

For Fantasy, it would be either the Stormlight Archives, the Divine Cities, or a shorter book Hyperion. For science fiction, I think it is increasingly tough to get into the classics. I would start with Chiang’s Stories of your Life and Others (which is more fantasy), the Three Body Problem (whole series or bust!). The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a fun starter as well for an older one.

Thanks for reading and hope you all have a great 2019!

“Thrawn” is a breath of fresh Star Wars air.

Timothy Zahn’s new book, Thrawn (April 2017) is a brilliant novel to stand against the string of relatively weak Star Wars movies that have been coming out these past few years. (Note, it is on sale for $1.99 for the next 5 days)

I love this book because it is strategic but simple to understand. It gives complexity to characters that become villains of the Star Wars galaxy. It has smart allies and antagonists across the board, and is often a political, military, and social battle of equals with their own strengths and weaknesses. Thrawn is a brilliant strategist but terrible politician. Arhinda, the second “protagonist” is a brilliant bureaucrat but overly paranoid and is all too willing to change loyalties when advantageous for her.

Interspersed between the chapters is Thrawn’s monologue or thoughts. They are pithy and feel like they belong in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”. Yet they are never cheesy and I think we’d do well today to follow them:

All people have regrets. Warriors are no exceptions. One would hope it was possible to distinguish between events caused by one’s carelessness or lack of ability and those caused by circumstances or forces beyond one’s control. But in practice, there is no difference. All forms of regret sear equally deeply into the mind and soul. All forms leave scars of equal bitterness.

In Arihnda Pryce, you can see where seemingly innocent but ambitious behavior transforms into shades of manipulation and cruelty. I love her character development so much.

In Thrawn, you see an internal struggle of being part of a genocidal empire that helps keep the peace in the Star Wars universe. Thrawn is a good guy on the wrong side, believing in stability above all else. His interactions with our main character, Eli, show that rather than being driven by paranoia, Thrawn is driven by principle and loyalty to his friends.

A friend need not be kept either within sight or within reach. A friend must be allowed the freedom to find and follow his own path.

Timothy Zahn wrote the original Thrawn books has done a great job tying in the post-Disney Star Wars with the “Legend Extended Universe” that is made “not canon”. I haven’t read the original Thrawn books, but hope to get to them as soon as possible. This is very well written YA, and makes me want to dive head-first into the Star Wars universe.

Asimov’s “Second Foundation” continues his streak of simple characters but brilliant imagination

Asimov’s third book of his Foundation series – “Second Foundation” is a 4 star book, purely on merit of the strategic climax pulled off in the story. I think it is worth a read to experience the story, but it suffers from the same things as his previous books in the series: static characters and very simplistic storylines.

Two thoughts here:

  1. The second foundation reminds me of the one of those stories that have a ton of story and backstory… just to set up the big pun (in this case a strategic stroke of brilliance). 
  2. It also reminds me of a big chess game with grand strokes. He effectively believes in Great people and naively focuses on a small subset of people that “change the course of history”. People prepare their chess moves in advance, and proceed to out-duel each other in a series of “i think you think i think” battles.

It’s hard to explain why Asimov is not a beautiful writer, but the stories always feel transactional, the twists forced, and sides with heavily unfair advantages. There’s little nuance to the books, and it all feels like a mediocre storyline that carries you over to the Little Twist, and then the Big Twist.

Overall I enjoy Asimov’s vision, themes and the diversity in which people engage with the “greater purpose” of the Seldon plan. Some people become complacent, while others become skeptical, and others fanatical. He uses generational gaps as a tool to refresh characters and show that sometimes the lessons of the past are forgotten.

Asimov was only 22 when he wrote this genre-defining “Foundation” series. I’ll attribute to his youth the brilliant imagination but simple understanding of human nature in this series. Despite whatever criticism is commonly leveled against Asimov, he rightfully deserves being one of the “big three” science fiction authors.

 

Mistborn’s study of religion seems to reflect Sanderson’s exploration of his own faith

The Mistborn series was Brandon Sanderson’s biggest hit… (before the Stormlight Archives blew it out of the water.)

But the series is still very good, and showed off Sanderson’s ability to create a beautiful world, fun dialogue, and an interesting magic system. Most brilliantly, it showed off Sanderson’s ability to create a crazy story arc that unwraps into a huge, sprawling plot and wraps itself back up again with a tiny bow on top.

That being said, the most interesting thing to me in Mistborn (and Sanderson) is around Religion.

Mistborn and Sanderson and Religion

Sanderson is a Mormon, which gives light to some patterns in his writing. You can see him teasing the edge of normal adult themes but the books stay mostly PG. His action is brilliant, but his conversations around romance and relationships have a child-like innocence.

The man seems to have a constant, intellectual struggle with his own relationship with the LDS (Latter Day Saints), and is open about it in his blog post reflecting on JK Rowling’s revelation of Dumbledore’s sexuality. This blog post is so, so characteristic of his open-minded writing style, and makes me appreciate that his character and his books are cut from the same cloth.

How much of his struggles are in the mind of Sazed? How does he think about featuring socially liberal characters and undergoing an study of hundreds of theoretical religions?

“It sounds to me, young one,” Haddek said, “that you’re searching for something that cannot be found.” “The truth?” Sazed said. “No,” Haddek replied. “A religion that requires no faith of its believers.”

I can’t help but wonder if Sazed’s intellectual, dispassionate study of religions around the world parallel’s Sanderson’s own attempt to question but come to terms with the Mormon Church.

How had Sazed become the one that people came to with their problems? Couldn’t they sense that he was simply a hypocrite, capable of formulating answers that sounded good, yet incapable of following his own advice? He felt lost. He felt a weight, squeezing him, telling him to simply give up.

In general, the entire series toys with the idea and roles religion and prophecy play in our lives. The idea of religious idols getting twisted and transformed by its practitioners is a consistent theme across the three books. Whether it be the Lord Ruler, the Survivor, the Survivor of the Flames, or the capital B big religion, they all come with their illusion of legitimacy, flaws, and fights between those of the faith.

I think Sanderson is the best fantasy author of this decade, and the way he approaches faith in his books simply makes me respect him even more.

Reviewing 25 more iOS games (circa Feb 2018)

The past half year has been more games than I’d like, but it’s been a good process of exploration of enjoyable games. Not all of these are very new, but there definitely is a bias towards new games.

Rankings

All played with iOS 7 plus. Bold = Paid game. 

10/10
I think these check off all the boxes of an amazing game. Highly recommend.
  1. Banner Saga 2 (Grid Strategy)
9/10
These are absolutely amazing games with one or two things that prevent it from being perfect. I absolutely finished as much as I could, or uninstalled to prevent myself from being debilitated by getting too addicted. 
  1. Star Wars KOTOR (RPG)
  2. Titanfall Assault (Strategy Duel?? e.g. Clash Royale)
  3. Arena of Valor (MOBA)
  4. Through the Ages (Board Game)
  5. Elder Scrolls: Legends (Card Game)
  6. Lost Portal (Card Game)
  7. Agent A (Escape Room)
8/10 
These are pretty solid games with no huge complaints. I’m happy to have played them however, I wouldn’t go out of my way to play them too much. Some of these (i.e. Vainglory) are supplanted by better versions above.  
  1. Vainglory (MOBA)
  2. Reigns, Her Majesty (Decision Making)
  3. Age of Rivals (Board Game)
  4. Hero Hunters (Shooter)
  5. The Room, Three (Escape Room)
  6. Iron Marines (Strategy)
7/10
Some of these I spent a good amount of time on, hoping they’d get better. They mostly ended up being a huge grind and waste of time. I think many of these have brilliant game mechanics but the Free to Play nature of them (along with autoplay) make me regret spending time on them. 
  1. Alchemist’s Code (Grid Strategy)
  2. Lineage 2 (MMORPG)
  3. Rules of Survival (Survival Shooter)
  4. Iron Blade (Swipe RPG)
  5. Dust, AET (Platformer)
Below 6
These games generally disappointed. They were often burdened by equal F2P issues as 7-rated games, but didn’t have great mechanics either. I wouldn’t recommend these.
  1. Ultimate General Gettysberg (Real Time Strategy)
  2. The Trail (Don’t know)
  3. NBA Live (Basketball)
  4. FIFA Live (Soccer)
  5. Onmyoji (RPG)

Onto the Reviews

Banner Saga 2 10

As beautiful and brilliant as the original Banner Saga, with new characters and fun.
 
I think I spent around 10-20 hours on this game. I really enjoyed the storyline, and the fact that your decisions are so often consequential. (i.e. if one character dies early on then it affects the story options later in the game).
 
This is one of the perfect and fun strategy grid series that I cannot recommend enough to new mobile gamers.

Star Wars KOTOR 9

+10 for being a brilliant story with tons of consequential decisions throughout the game. You don’t only pursue good or evil in the main storyline. Rather, these decision points exist in almost all minor interactions and side quests. You can choose to be helpful, or a huge asshole across the board.
-1 for controls.
This is a 9 because the controls aren’t that great. Definitely would have preferred WASD w/ clicking, but the mobility was absolutely worth it.

Titanfall Assault 9

Titanfall Assault is an isometric Clash Royale clone, and executes it extremely effectively. 
For those who haven’t played CR, you strategically drop units across the map to win capture points. The units move autonomously to capture objectives. Each unit has different costs and counters, so you have to manage resources to out-duel your opponent. 
I really like the capture points system rather than just base race. These packaged 3-5 minute games make it easy to squeeze in throughout the day.

Lost Portal 9 

This is a pretty good card game that rivals the two peer games Hearthstone & Elder Scrolls:Legends. The mechanics are much easier to learn and a bit more forgiving. 
 
The brilliance of this game is difficulty progression. You have to make nuanced but steady improvements in your deck to battle your way through the ~6 stages in the game. Each stage has 3-4 levels, each level has 3-4 floors, each floor has 3-4 opponents, so 6 x 3 x 3 x 3 gives us at least 100+ unique opponents to power through.

Through the Ages 9

Never played the board game, but this this screams to me very good port” of a very fun board game game. This game’s resource management and counting rivals the complexity of Agricola (i.e. blows Settlers of Catan out of the water), and the app collapses this into a very functional UI and does all the counting for you.
Ultimately a highly addicting game, and with challenging CPUs. I can’t imagine the commitment needed to play an online game, so I won’t try that. In the end, absolutely worth it if you love board games and want to harden those chops.

Arena of Valor 9

This is legitimately a good game. AoV basically a League of Legends clone that has taken China by storm. There are some others (i.e. Mobile Legends, Vainglory, etc.) but I believe AoV is the best at this moment. Games are around 25 minutes for a ranked 5v5. Matchmaking is nearly instant.
 
A combination of joystick & auto-target simplifies the otherwise difficult mechanics in LoL, and allows you to focus on the fun parts (i.e. positioning, team fights, etc). Admittedly, it is a bit harder to specific units for single-target spells, but that’s for another day.
 
Also, just like league, this has very limited pay to play” mechanics so you can be on
 
One of the main issues with Vainglory, for example, was if you fat fingered an attack, you would move towards the enemy rather than attacking & kiting. 

Agent A 9

This is a fun, cutely animated escape room” type game. You are Agent A, trying to sneak into enemy operative La Rouge’s” to stop her from eliminating your entire intelligence team. The colors are bright, so It is a great combination of playfulness, challenge, and a nice thick plot. Altogether a pleasant play.

Elder Scrolls: Legends 9

This one is a brilliant card game that has equally fun if not funner mechanics than Hearthstone. Matchmaking was very reasonable, and I don’t remember having any problems with progression. This is one of the few games I uninstalled to prevent the addiction from getting too far.

Hero Hunters 8

I think the issue is that early on it’s very non-obvious where the strategy in the game is (other than composition). It is like playing some bite-sized version of Time Crisis on mobile, where the big mechanics involve moving between cover”, switching between characters, and shooting enemies.
 
I liked it but it was fun for about… 2 hours until I moved on.

Age of Rivals 8

I downloaded this in an attempt to play a board game on the computer. It actually has very difficult mechanics and non-trivial CPU difficulty. Minus points for not allowing you to adjust your deck! This is a pretty annoying part.
 
This is one of the few board games” where I think multiplayer is pretty reasonable each game is < 20 minutes. I think I’m scared of going back to it because it Is easy to forget all the strategies very quickly. 

The Room Three 8

This game is one of those escape the room” type games that is slightly creepy but intricately designed and absolutely beautiful. I didn’t finish it entirely, but enough to love and appreciate the artistry.

Iron Marines 8

This is an attempted Starcraft-style RTS that is much more simplistic. I don’t think these types of games work too well on mobile, and in the end I couldn’t really figure out how to effectively deal with the mechanics. 

Rules of Survival 8

+ for implementation
– for difficulty, generally not worth getting into this genre (though i guess you can say the same about FPS, RTS, MOBA  etc.)
I played this game for like 2 hours, and decided this PUBG/Fortnite style game was not for me. This is such an experience-driven game that as a newbie you are completely dead in the water in this free for all battle royale. The mechanics for this game are admittedly very good and I imagine almost as fun as the PC version.
 
Overall plus points for implementation, and minus for difficulty, generally not worth getting into this genre (though i guess you can say the same about FPS, RTS, MOBA  etc.)

Onirim 7

This is another classic board game/card game port to Mobile. It is kind of fun in the beginning, but effectively a sophisticated version of Solitaire with different cards and rules. If that is your thing, you will love Onirim. Otherwise, it is a solid free game, easy to learn, and worth a shot.

Lineage 2 7

+1 for well designed open world, no stamina in F2P
-1 for Autoplay, lack of customization
I really wanted to vent by playing a brainless Diablo-style clone. Lineage is a beautiful open world game with reasonable characters and a diverse map. There is no end of things to do, and stamina is not an issue.
 
However, the big issue with Lineage (and a lot of modern games coming out of asia) is Autoplay”. In this mode, your character plays itself, and you end up doing little more than equipping your character and deciding which missions to embark on to get in on all the promotions. Yes, you don’t *have* to autoplay but once the option is available it becomes a heavy disadvantage not to use it.
 
It also gets minus points for lack of customization (everyone has same spells), and lots of fetch/kill quests.

Dust AET 7

Sideways platformer. Pretty fun but in the end it is some sort of mindless mashing of attacks and combos. The story doesn’t seem good enough to make up for that.

Alchemist’s Code 7

This is a mobile F2P version of Final Fantasy Tactics. I think that it is legitimately a fun game and has good mechanics. It has a grinding structure where you can get most of the characters.
The story is pretty crap, and overall I just couldn’t bear myself to finish or continue playing. In the end, pretty addicting but overall “wouldn’t reinstall”.