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Fallen Down: Heartache & Compassion in Undertale

Fallen Down: Heartache & Compassion in UndertaleOrder this bookStory: Writer Joel Couture (whose work you may recognize from Siliconera, Gamasutra, and IndieGames.com) ventures into the world of the computer game Undertale, meeting its unique cast of characters under very different circumstances, as the game allows players to remain neutral, take a pacifist stance throughout the game, or go on a blood-soaked “Genocide Run”, killing everything and everyone in sight. It’s the last of these that affects him so profoundly that he admits he may not be able to play Undertale again, and explains why the game’s varying modes of play have had such a seismic effect on him.

Review: In the interests of full disclosure, a lot of Undertale goes on under my roof. My oldest is nearly obsessed with it, we’ve both played it, and I’ve given my stamp of approval by way of starting his collection of the Fangamer “Undertale little buddies” figures (of which more another time). So far down the Undertale rabbit hole has my son gone that he’s been working on his own version of the game – except with characters and scenarios of his own creation – programming it entirely in Scratch. We’ve watched YouTube videos that put forth outlandish theories on the origins of wisecracking skeletons Sans and Papyrus, postulating that Undertale may be an offshoot of Mother / Earthbound, and so on. What inspired me to give this game my wholehearted endorsement? The tagline that sells the game – “the RPG where you don’t have to kill anybody!” – scratches the surface: very much like an all-time favorite computer game of mine, Ultima IV, Undertale has a system of morality built into it, holding the player accountable for his actions. Continue reading

Ambassadors From Earth: Pioneering Explorations With Unmanned Spacecraft

Ambassadors From EarthOrder this bookStory: The history of outer solar system exploration is covered in depth, from the earliest notional studies of robotic exploration beyond Mars to the missions that actually made it off the drawing board and into space – Pioneers 10 and 11, Voyagers 1 and 2, and their progeny such as Galileo and Cassini.

Review: This is the book I’ve been looking for and waiting for. There are books aplenty – both lovely and lacking – on the Voyager missions to the outer planets, but while JPL’s machine marvels continue functioning to this day, outlasting interplanetary missions launched both before and since 1977, they were not the first. This book covers the ambitious Pioneer missions to Jupiter and Saturn that preceeded (and, in many ways, paved the way for) the Voyagers, and revealed that there was much to be gained by going and – at least for a while – staying at Jupiter and Saturn. Continue reading

The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987

The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987Order this bookStory: Video game scholar Brett Weiss nominates his picks for the hundred best console games from the heyday of the age of cartridges – from the earliest days of interchangeable cartridges in 1977 to the ascendancy of the Nintendo Entertainment System a decade later. Across a wide variety of game systems and genres, covering killer app originals and ports of popular arcade games alike, the picks represent a wide spectrum of both hardware and software. If that’s not enough for you, an appendix nominates a hundred additional contenders.

Review: In the interests of full disclosure (a dying art these days, isn’t it?), I’ll tell you that I’m quoted in several places in this book, though I didn’t know which quotes from past articles of mine would pop up, so The 100 Greatest Console Video Games was still a nice surprise for me.

The “Top [insert number here] List” format is a mainstay of pop culture retrospectives, but often falls victim to the “received wisdom” of a particular age group or other demographic. Weiss tries to touch on many genres and numerous systems here, encouraging his readers to discover gems that they may have overlooked in the past. Continue reading

Stranger Than Fiction: The Life And Times Of Split Enz

Stranger Than FictionOrder this bookStory: Original Split Enz bassist Mike Chunn, who played with the New Zealand supergroup in its formative art-rock-turned-theatrical-extravaganza phase (1972-77) charts the formation, the heady rise and eventual success of the group, with comments from all of his bandmates and his own insider perspective.

Review: Can there ever really be enough books about the musical career of the Finn Brothers? (For this reader: no. As it so happens, the first book ever reviewed in this section was a book on this very topic.) And strangely enough, the aforementioned book about Crowded House quoted this book heavily: primary source material if ever there was some. And source material doesn’t get much more primary than the memoir of one of the founding members of Split Enz. Continue reading

Warnings: The True Story Of How Science Tamed The Weather

WarningsOrder this bookStory: Mike Smith, former TV meteorologist and founder of Weatherdata, Inc., recounts the formative events that inspired him to study weather – particularly severe weather – and take it up as a career. His involvement in forecasting such severe weather events as Hurricane Katrina and the devastating 2007 Greensburg, Kansas tornado (which destroyed that entire town), is covered in detail.

Review: A fascinating read for at least half of its page count, “Warnings” promises to be a history of forecasting severe weather in the United States. The first half of the book delivers on that admirably, taking us from the era when tornadoes just seemed to sneak up on (and kill) an unaware populace to modern times, when the debate usually isn’t “was there a warning?”, but rather “how much lead time did the warning give?”. From the fabled first (and quite unauthorized) tornado warning issued at, and for, Tinker Air Force Bace in Oklahoma City, the development of severe weather forecasting and warning is traced through the use of modified navigational radars from ships to the development of Doppler radar and computer modeling (and the very hands-on human data gathering that has to happen for the computer modeling to be even remotely useful or accurate). Continue reading

Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN

Season FinaleOrder this bookStory: Industry insiders trace the two rival attempts to create the “fifth network” of the 1990s – Warner Brothers’ WB network and the United Paramount Network, from the earliest discussions of starting them through their mutual decline and merger into the 21st century CW network. Spoiler: neither of the networks, only a handful of the networks’ shows, and only some of their executives’ careers, make it out of the story alive.

Review: As a promo writer/producer at two UPN stations in the 1990s – one in Arkansas, one in Wisconsin – it was my job to try to make all of the network’s shows look good to our audience, as best I could, with the material the network made available to us. It wasn’t easy. UPN was a schizophrenic beast: hip, urban humor one night, sci-fi the next night. And when the network suddenly claimed all five weeknights for its fall 1998 season, that wild spread of shows and genres got even wilder. I always wanted to know: how did those decisions get made, who made them, and why did the promotional push for that…diverse (trying to be charitable there)…1998 season seem to evaporate as soon as the shows premiered?

Written by WB programming executive Suzanne Daniels and Daily Variety reporter Cynthia Littleton (likely drawing from her own coverage of UPN), Season Finale answers that question and many more. Continue reading

The Brilliant Book of Doctor Who 2011

The Brilliant Book of Doctor Who 2011Order this bookStory: A mashup of fiction, behind-the-scenes fact and a treasure trove of photos, the Brilliant Book covers Matt Smith’s first season as the Doctor. Profiles of the show’s stars and creative staff include looks at the production of the 2010 season and glimpses into the history of the show. The Dream Lord put in an appearance to drop vaguely spoilery hints about the 2011 season, but those hints are wedged in between lots of misleading red herrings and other total fabrications.

Review: When I was a kid and Doctor Who was on the cusp of being in vogue in America in the 1980s, Doctor Who books usually shared many qualities – they were nifty hardbacks with nice cover art, they had gobs of information about the show’s past that you were unlikely to find anywhere else in the days before the web and the commercial availability of every complete story in existence, and they also usually happened to be compiled by the late Peter Haining (I hesitate to use the word “written” because Haining made an art form out of collating essays and other content that was written by others). Not unlike the show that inspired it, Haining’s books were wordy and progressed at a very leisurely pace (even for non-fiction), and contained lots of exlamation points!

By contrast, “Doctor Who: The Brilliant Book 2010” changes topics, typographical/layout styles and authors every few pages – a sort of printed representation of the breakneck pace at which the Doctor’s adventures unfold in the modern series. Continue reading

Sojourner

Book titleOrder this bookStory: Subtitled “An Insider’s View of the Mars Pathfinder Mission,” this book recounts the history of the original Mars rover mission that inspired millions in 1997, from its genesis as a retrofitting of long-outdated unused moon rover hardware to the little rover’s landing and exploration of the Martian landscape. Despite being written by Andrew Mishkin, the Senior Systems Engineer for the Sojourner rover for JPL, the book is culled from extensive interviews with his teammates and co-workers.

Review: An eye-opening book, “Sojourner” is an incredible tale of a little unmanned mission that could – despite obstacles on two planets. The forbidden environment of Mars is enough of a hazard to survive, to say nothing of the months of deep space journey before Soujourner and its Mars Pathfinder mothership arrived at the red planet. Just as many obstacles threatened to keep Sojourner’s wheels on Earth, from technical difficulties to petty bureaucracies. Continue reading

The John Nathan-Turner Memoirs, Volume 2

The John Nathan-Turner Memoirs, Volume 2Order this bookStory: Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner (1980-1990) relates the story of his tenure as the longest-serving producer of the series, virtually guiding it through the entirety of the 1980s until the BBC quietly cancelled it. In this volumes, he takes listeners, episode-by-episode, through his work on the show, starting halfway through 1986’s Trial Of A Time Lord, and then covering the tumultous unseating of leading man Colin Baker, the casting of his successor Sylvester McCoy, and the making of McCoy’s three seasons as the Doctor. Nathan-Turner’s continuing association with Doctor Who, even after the show was no longer being made, is covered, as are his thoughts on the show’s future (a few years before Russell T. Davies’ new series was announced) and some of its more vocal fans.

Review: A bit closer to what I was hoping to hear from The John Nathan-Turner Memoirs, the second volume of the former Doctor Who producer’s audio memoirs still comes in for a landing wide of the mark. Like the first volume, this one concentrates too much on story-by-story anecdotes in a way that doesn’t pause for breath and doesn’t allow for a more elaborate exploration of JN-T’s opinions of any particular event. Continue reading

The John Nathan-Turner Memoirs, Volume 1

The John Nathan-Turner Memoirs, Volume 1Order this bookStory: Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner (1980-1990) relates the story of his tenure as the longest-serving producer of the series, virtually guiding it through the entirety of the 1980s until the BBC quietly cancelled it. In this volumes, he takes listeners,episode-by-episode, through his work on the show, starting as a studio floor assistant in the Patrick Troughton story The Space Pirates, through his work as production unit manager, through his rise to the position of producer at the end of Tom Baker’s reign. At the end of the second disc, “JN-T” discusses the 1985 cancellation/hiatus crisis and the beginning of production on The Trial Of A Time Lord.

Review: I’ve had both 2-CD volumes of the late John Nathan-Turner’s memoirs sitting on the shelf for some time, but they sat there until a recent listen to fellow Doctor Who producer Barry Letts’ memoirs spurred me to listen, contrast and compare. As with the two wildly different epochs of Doctor Who itself, trying to compare the two showrunners’ memoirs is an exercise involving apples and oranges. Continue reading