Book cover for Triggers

Book review: Triggers by Robert J Sawyer

I recently finished reading Triggers, the latest novel by Canadian science fiction writer Robert J Sawyer. After the television adaptation of his novel Flashforward, there was an obvious desire to tap into a larger market of potential fans. Many of Sawyer’s earlier novels had elements of suspense, but none could ever truly be called a thriller. They have all been heavy on the philosophical issues, exploring ideas and thoughts on the meaning of humanity.

Book cover for Triggers

Triggers is the combination of this philosophy on the human condition, mixed with high stakes action. Sawyer manages this quite well. While Sawyer’s message is as positive as always, the comparison to Michael Crichton’s techno-thrillers is more relevant than ever.

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Book review: Enter, Night by Michael Rowe

I’m not really into the whole vampire craze. Zombies are more my style. I think I read some Anne Rice novels after Interview with a Vampire came out. The most interesting vampire literature which I’ve read would have to be The Stress of Her Regard, by Tim Powers. However, while at Ad Astra this year, I picked up a copy of Enter, Night by Michael Rowe.

Enter, Night
Enter, Night is a much darker novel. It is grittier, more immediate. It evokes a primal response. Disquiet and fear. It makes me wish that tonight wasn’t garbage night, and that I didn’t have to step out into the forbidding darkness.

Chizine Publications Pin

I think what makes Enter, Night so effective is the careful blend of the familiar with the unknown. Instead of a straight up vampire novel, it blends the vampire mythos with native legends of the wendigo. The setting of a small, remote northern Ontario town gives a sense of isolation, allowing the major characters to interact with stereotypical small town conservatism. While familiar, they aren’t the experiences of the reader, who is of course, intended to follow the returning urbanites. We are supposed to share their distaste at the ignorance, prejudice and hypocrisy in Parr’s Landing.

The theme of prejudice against the other, the fear of being different, is woven throughout the novel. Whether it is through issues of premarital sex and pregnancy, sexual orientation, or racial status, Rowe shows the pain of being different. Ironically, the true Other in the novel is a vampire, who unifies his victims. A sense of personal identity is important in the novel, and the loss of that personal individuality is crushing. This adds a much richer fabric for the story, and issues to talk about. Speculative fiction is a literature of ideas, and Rowe’s novel speaks on issues of importance.

It’s refreshing to read a vampire novel where all the traditional means of defense exist: stakes, sunlight, crosses and holy water. Churches as places of refuge, and the need for permission to enter a residence. This is another sign of the familiar, balanced by the addition of the wendigo myths. Further anchorage is provided through comics, such as the very real Tomb of Dracula series published in 1972 by Detective Comics. It roots the story in the familiar, framing our expectations.

The story has good characterization. The major characters are well fleshed out, and even minor characters have well defined motivations, often based on strong inner conflict.

After the main story, the book also contains an additional story, a historical narrative, explaining the origins of vampires in the area which became Parr’s Landing. It’s a document referenced in the main text, and provides an interesting view of history, especially regarding Canada’s colonization of the native tribes. It traces not just the history of the vampires, but also of the guilt that we should feel for the way we have treated others.

Enter, Night is clearly worthy of the Aurora nomination this year. Read it with a mind open to these ideas, but you might want to keep the lights on.

Ad Astra 2012

I’ve attended Ad Astra, a Toronto science fiction convention, for several years now. As the Don Valley Parkway was closed for maintenance this weekend, the change of venue from the hotel used over the last few years was welcome.
The convention floor was much more accessible, without the insane number of stairs everywhere, like at the previous convention centre. However, the venue space for vendors was insufficient. The main vendors room had four or five booksellers, including Bakka Phoenix and Chizine Publications. Other vendors had tables lining the hallways. When customers stood outside their tables, walking down the halls became difficult.

Steampunk cosplayers at Ad Astra

In addition to the Steampunk cosplayers, this year a number of vendors were selling Steampunk accessories.

The convention seemed a little emptier this year. Toronto Comicon was this weekend as well, which certainly didn’t help. The programming on Saturday appeared to be hit or miss. At some times, three panels of interest were scheduled at the same time, while at others, nothing of interest was going on. Those were the times where I like to circle the vendors room, but it didn’t take nearly as long this year.

Perhaps the most engaging panel was one on criticism, moderated by Adam Shaftoe. It was nice to meet him in person for the first time. It’s always interesting to see who has twitter notifications enabled in a panel. After I mentioned him in a tweet, I could see him scanning the room to find me. The panelists had a good discussion, about the advantages and disadvantages of ARCs and blog monetization. The best advice was from Ryan Oakley. No, not this, but rather that reviewers shouldn’t worry about the feelings of the author. Consider the work alone. Assume a certain level of professionalism on the part of all parties, and follow Wheaton’s Rule: Don’t be a dick.

I really enjoyed attending a few readings. Suzanne Church read from her Aurora nominated story The Needle’s Eye, which was really moving. Marcy Italiano read her short story Dance at my Funeral, a great story about a final farewell. Where S

Later I attended a reading by Matt Moore, Derek Kunsken, and Marie Bilodeau, who read to an engaged audience. Matt had the other authors help read parts of his story Ascension, a story about telepathic zombies. Marie read her Aurora nominated short story The Legend of Gluck, in which a rotten skull is dragged around. Not to be outdone, Derek read from his Aurora nominated story To Live and Die in Gibbontown, which was published in Asimov’s. Matt then finished off with a Lovecraft inspired story Delta Pi. The East Block Irregulars writing group is well represented by these authors.

I’m not sure which story I enjoyed best. The reading of Ascension was spectacular, and any story where the characters are monkeys will have my attention. Despite his disclaimer that this was his first public reading, Derek was funny and engaging. Finally, of you’ve not attended a reading by Marie, you’re really missing out. A French accent and rotting sorcerer brains? A winning combination!

To wrap up the night, I attended the start of the Chizine party, where Michael Rowe graciously signed the copy of Enter, Night I picked up in the dealer’s room. Chizine made out like the piratical bandits they are in the Aurora nominations, and this modern vampire novel, set in northern Ontario in the 1970s, was one of them. All too soon, I had to depart. It was a good day, and it was nice to see everyone again.

Zombies on the iPhone

I’ll admit, I’m addicted to Zombie games. They’re not all of the same calibre, however.

iOS screenshot of zombie apps

As you can see, I do actually have a few zombie games. One of the more traditional arcade style games is Zombieville USA 2. With an analog control pad area for navigation, and three equipped weapons, this game is a fast shooter, where the objective is to survive to the helicopter evacuation zone, by fighting your way through a horde of the walking dead. Action is fast paced, and the graphics are cartoonish and fun. With all the upgrades, the shotgun transforms your character into a zombie slaying machine. It has a lot of replay value.

Zombieville 2 screenshot

Z-Day Survival is a choose your own adventure style post apocalyptic survival simulator. While its entertaining, there is a limited decision tree, which greatly limits replay value.

Z-Day survival screenshot

Zombie Highway is a rather mindless test of endurance. How far can you drive your car down the highway without being overturned? It integrates with Game Center, so you can see the distance your friends have made it.

Zombie Highway screenshot

Zombie Farm is what I assume FarmVille must be like, but with zombies. You harvest zombies, potentially mutating them with plants, and then send an undead army against a series of computer opponents. I honestly don’t know why I haven’t removed this from my device.

Zombie Farm

Zombie Lane, however, is far more entertaining. This game was originally a FaceBook game, and was also available in Google+. It has been ported from Flash to run on iOS. I believe it’s also available for Android as well. It’s a well balanced game, action points recover reasonably fast. There are always a stream of tasks and quests to accomplish. The multiplayer connection can integrate with Facebook, but doesn’t really show you who has the game. It also uses friend codes. My Friend code is: 172650524. I would caution anyone planning on playing this on an original iPad that the game appears to hit the system memory limits frequently, causing it to crash. It runs fine on my iPhone 4S.

Zombie Lane screenshot

Zombie Gunship claims to be about zombies. You’re high up in a helicopter gunship looking through a heads up display at tiny targets on the ground. The task is to take out the zeds, which are dark, while allowing the white “civilians” to escape to safety. While I believe that the developers were intending the colors to represent heat signatures, it leads to a racial aspect in the game that makes me uncomfortable.

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Infected is a zombie tower defense game. Your mission is to protect some civilians by buying and placing different types of units nearby, hopefully to take out the waves of incoming zombies. Different zombies have different weaknesses, and it’s a job of min maxing in order to survive. It tends to get a little tedious after awhile.

infected screenshot

The final two games are both running games, which interact with your GPS location. Zombies, Run! was a successful kickstarter campaign, and is a well executed app. While running, it adds prerecorded mission commentary in spaces in your running soundtrack. As you run, you pick up items with which you can provision and upgrade your base. The visual interface is decent, but when you are using it, your focus is on running, not the app. This game makes running fun, and is probably the most relevant training for the zombie apocalypse. It builds a compelling narrative, and the voice acting is fairly decent.

Zombies, Run!

The last game, Zombie Run, is clearly an attempt at beating Zombies, Run! to market. The concept is crudely executed, overlaying a few sprites over google map imagery. This really feels like it was slapped together on order to get the product out the door. Aside from the idea that zombies provide motivation for running, Zombie Run provides very little of note. I’m not going to provide a screenshot. Just avoid this one folks.

Of the games reviewed here, three get a wholehearted recommendation. Zombieville USA 2, Zombie Lane, and Zombies, Run!

Supporting Local in a Global Marketplace

While listening to 570 News the other day, one of the hosts of “Your Money Matters” assured the audience that although he likes Apple stock, that he wears a BlackBerry on his hip.

I know that I’m not the only person in Waterloo Region with an iPhone, and there are a number of folks with Android devices as well. After all, Google has a local presence here as well.

The fact remains that there appears to be a blind devotion to supporting Research in Motion’s handheld devices, without a critical comparison to competitors. “BlackBerrys have a physical keyboard” is one quick defense, with the strong implication that a touch screen device is useless for typing. Guess what? This post was typed entirely on my iPhone.

Before someone suggests that I don’t know enough about BlackBerry, let me assure you that I do. During my four and a half years working there, I used the Pearl, Bold, Storm, Torch, and all the variants. I even used a Pearl Flip for awhile. Some were better than others, but when it was time to leave RIM, I didn’t hesitate, and bought an iPhone.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should buy an iPhone, but rather that they should acknowledge that they may not have the best, most competitive device. In fact, they should realize that this blind devotion to RIM, and lack of local criticism may in fact have contributed to the lack of true innovation in the last several years.

While I understand the desire to support local businesses, the lack of critical dialogue in the community makes things seem like a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. I think we need members of the community to be critical of local businesses which are attempting to compete globally. It leaves the perception of being a market leader, where outside the region, the ship has long since sailed.

This increased isolation from competitive devices has no doubt affected RIM staff as well. How many developers at RIM have had much experience using an iPhone or Android? How many know areas in which one is better than another?

Now I’m sure that their situation is abundantly clear by now. The new CEO does not have rose colored glasses. Other recent departures on the executive hopefully reveal a shift in vision, to address the challenges facing them today.

We in Waterloo Region have benefited from RIM’s past success. Does this require seemingly sycophantic praise for their current devices? While I wish my former coworkers the best of luck in the current transition to BlackBerry 10, I can only hope that their new devices meet the demands of the wider international market, and not just those of Waterloo Region.

We should also remember that as a corporation, RIM’s first duty is to its shareholders. The corporation doesn’t “owe” the community anything, outside any possible contracts with the municipalities. However unlikely it may seem, some high level deal could see RIM walk away from the region, to set up shop elsewhere. Don’t think that could happen? Just ask the folks in Salo, Finland, about ailing Nokia. While I don’t see this happening, RIM has significant investment in the region, it is within the realm of possibilities, especially if RIM enters certain partnerships or is otherwise acquired.

What do you think? Am I missing something here? Is there a reason to praise the current BlackBerrys? Does the Be Bold marketing campaign mean anything to you? Should I cut RIM a little more slack as they negotiate their transition to a new platform, or do you, like me, hope that people stop trying to defend their mobile choices by saying that they are “supporting the local guy”?

Brand identity: What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title

Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2

The issue of naming is not as arbitrary as Shakespeare would have us believe. A name brings nuanced meaning, bringing with it the cultural associations the name carries. Sometimes, there can be positive and negative meanings associated with a name.

Consider Apple. In the computer and business world, it is associated with design andengineering, and a close attention to detail. In the music world, Apple is associated with the Beatles. Going back a bit further in history, apples have played an important role in society, perhaps most notably with Isaac Newton and his discovery of the laws of gravity.

 

Apples also have a dark side in history, such as the cyanide laced apple with which Alan Turing took his life. Other occurrences in mythology, such as Snow White’s apple, confirm this dual nature.

How then do we determine the meaning associated with a symbol? Are all apples symbolic of science or poison? Hardly. With every symbol, the way in which it is used reinforces a preferred meaning. With Apple, Inc., the slogan Think Different emphasized Newton’s scientific genesis. Through time, this has been amplified through increased innovation. Alan Turing Memorial

Not every brand has the history of the apple, however. Many more are built upon the names of their founders. Ford, Dell, and Toyota are all family names. Even Walmart derives it’s name from founder Sam Walton. In each case, these brands developed their own identity, without relying as heavily on prior associations.

How should you brand yourself? While in the past, this blog was hosted at maplemuse.wordpress.com, I have decided that a change was in order. Why was I working on a different brand when I could be building my own identity? This blog is now hosted at the fresh and minty nickmatthews.ca. After all, that’s who I am.