Science, Fiction, Life

Month: March 2016

Book Review: The Girl With All the Gifts

This is the sort of book that is best if you go into it knowing as little as possible, so it’s a bit of a challenge to review. I will keep this review vague, but if you really don’t want to know anything more than my verdict, here it is: This is a great book with well-drawn, morally complex characters, and you should definitely read it.

Ok, with that said, I am now going to reveal a small amount about the book so I can talk about it a bit more…


This is a book about zombies. This isn’t a major spoiler, because it is heavily hinted at in the blurb on the cover, but it’s all I’m really going to reveal because one of the best things about the book is figuring things out as you get farther and farther along. Some books keep secrets from the reader and it’s incredibly annoying, but this one doles out the information at just the right pace, making it fascinating to read.

This book is way better than your average zombie apocalypse. It uses some familiar tropes but also does things differently enough that I didn’t feel like I had read it before. There is a good deal of scientific detail about the zombies and although my area of science expertise is not biology, the science didn’t set off any alarms in my mind for being too ridiculous. It’s well done enough that I bought in completely.

The real strength of this story are the characters. This is a tightly written novel with a small cast of characters, but each of them is fleshed out and complex, with interesting backstories and plausible motivations. I was especially impressed by the “villain” character: this book could serve as a textbook for how to write a morally complex villain who the reader can sympathize with even while hating them.

Another perk is that as far as I can tell this is a stand-alone novel, not the beginning of a ten-part epic series. It is long enough to draw you in deeply but is not bloated like some sci-fi and fantasy books can become. The story arcs draw to a satisfying conclusion, and the ending is a good one that will really make you think.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and I recommend it highly.

Book Review: Three Body Problem


The Three Body Problem is the first novel in a trilogy  by the popular Chinese author Liu Cixin. It took the sci-fi community by storm last year, winning the Hugo award for best novel, so I thought it would be worth checking out. Also, it is always interesting to read books that have been translated into English.

The novel is set in a combination of flashbacks to the Chinese cultural revolution and aftermath, and a near-future “present”. I don’t want to give away too much of the story because part of the appeal is gradually figuring out what is going on, but I think it’s safe to say that this is a novel about first contact with an alien civilization. This novel falls squarely into the realm of “hard” science fiction: most of the characters are physicists, and they love to tell each other about physics. A major element in the novel in addition to all the physics, is a (very boring) virtual reality video game with the same name as the book.

In fact, I have to report that I found this novel overall to be pretty boring. There are some great moments that will definitely stick in my mind, but for the most part it moved very slowly and had way too many lengthy digressions about some technical concept or other. Since I have degrees in physics and physics-adjacent fields, I’m just not impressed by novels that rely so heavily on impressing the reader with how cool certain technical ideas are and how much research the author did. (Especially when the author makes some sloppy mistakes with certain details…). I’ll always prefer a compelling story about interesting characters over a lesson in how logic gates in a computer work.

I could have tolerated the lessons if the story moved faster, but it was pretty glacial, and it’s only the start of the story. It’s always a bad sign when I am startled that a book is over because it means it didn’t feel like it was wrapping up its story arcs very well. Three Body Problem doesn’t feel like a complete novel, it feels like the first third of a massive (and rather boring) novel, and that’s something that always annoys me.

Oh well. It was interesting to read a popular novel by a Chinese author, and there were moments that were great, but I don’t think I’ll be continuing the series.


Game Review: Walking Dead: Season 1


You know that feeling when you get to the end of a great novel? Or when the credits are rolling after an amazing season finale for your favorite TV show? Yeah, that’s what I’m feeling right now after finishing The Walking Dead: Season 1.

I’ve been known to complain on this blog about the lack of a decent story in video games. It’s something that always bothers me because so many games could be so much better if they spent just a little effort on the plot instead of filler content so that they can claim there are 100 hours of gameplay. Thankfully, it looks like at least some game designers are realizing this, and Telltale games seems to be leading the way.

Playing The Walking Dead is not like other games. You don’t have much freedom to move around, the controls are frankly pretty clunky, and the graphics are not amazing (but they are cool looking: making the game look like a comic book is a nice shout out to the source material that also allows them to skimp on graphics). The Walking Dead is more like watching an episode of a TV show. The game is even broken into discrete episodes, complete with credits, “previously on…” and teasers for the next episode. But the difference is that it’s a TV show where instead of yelling impotently at the screen when the characters do something dumb, you actually get to play the role of one of the characters (though if you’re like me you’ll still yell at the non-player characters from time to time…).

In The Walking Dead: Season 1, you play Lee, a former history professor who was on his way to jail when the zombie apocalypse occurred (the details of your past are revealed gradually, so I won’t say anything more than that). You end up escaping from the crashed cop car and finding a little girl, Clementine, hiding out in her tree fort to get away from the zombies. You take her under your wing and meet up with an assortment of other interesting characters as you try to survive in the zombie infested world. Unlike most games where killing aliens or terrorists or, you know, zombies, is the main attraction, here the best part of the game is just getting to know the characters. They all are well written, often with their own annoying traits but that only serves to make them feel “real”.

Of course, with realistic characters comes conflict. Disagreements about how best to survive, who is in charge, what to do when someone “turns” into a zombie. In every episode, you are faced with a few tough moral decisions, and these decisions have consequences. More often than not, your choices determine who survives the episode, which can be very difficult because the characters are so well developed. (The game does overuse the “who will you save?” decision a bit.) But it’s not all choices like that. Sometimes it’s the choice between fighting someone or talking to them to calm them down, or what to tell Clementine about whether her parents are alive or not, or whether to trust a newcomer to the group. Oh, and usually you only have a second or two to decide. Of course, the choices don’t alter the fundamental backbone of the story too much: the game’s writers would rapidly end up with a million different diverging stories. But even though the game steers you toward what must happen to advance the story, the fact that you get to make decisions that affect not only the current episode, but all subsequent episodes, means that you get really emotionally invested in the game. The Walking Dead game could easily be set up to just watch like a TV show, and it would be a pretty darn good show on its own. But by allowing you, the player, to make choices and get invested in the characters, it ends up being more powerful than just about any TV show I’ve ever watched. Not to give anything away, but the ending of the final episode had a hell of an emotional impact.

The only negative thing I can say about the game is that one of the episodes was very buggy. I had to restart and re-do a few scenes to be able to get through it. Things like this are especially jarring for a game that otherwise sucks you in so thoroughly.

But other than the bugs, I loved this game. It makes me incredibly happy that there are more “seasons” and that Telltale has quite a few other games out there (apparently they have a Game of Thrones series that I’ll have to check out). I really hope the success of games like this that don’t treat plot and characters as an afterthought inspires other developers to follow suit.


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