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Hugh Likes Fiction: Space Opera

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Space Opera
Written by Catherynne M. Valente
Published by Saga Press

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The Skinny: In this farcical and inventive Sci-fi novel, aliens arrive on Earth to welcome Humanity to the galaxy. There’s only one catch: They’ll have to prove themselves in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, the universe’s greatest song contest.

I was a big fan of Star Trek growing up, but there was one thing that always bothered me about the show. Everyone was obsessed with historical Earth culture. From reading Shakespeare to playing baseball to Bach recitals to so much Sherlock Holmes, it’s all Earth, all the time. And everything was nice and public domain, of course.
This did make sense, from a certain perspective. It connects the viewer to the characters through shared culture, and makes the unfamiliar setting of an interstellar spaceship that much more human. But I always wanted to know a bit more than than the show let on about the alien cultures. What would an alien world’s culture really be like? Further more, what would their POP culture be like? Catherynne M. Valente’s newest novel, Space Opera, makes that question its central premise.
Once, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros were once the biggest band in the world. They’ve broken up, and their a bit washed up these days, but none of that matter when aliens invade Earth, looking for the greatest musicians on the planet to represent Earth in the galaxy’s greatest song contest, The Metagalactic Grand Prix. Decibel and remaining band mate Oort St. Ultraviolet get the nod, by virtue of being the only band on short list that’s still alive. Invitation to the Grand Prix is a great honor, and will give humanity the stars. But if they come in last, the Earth will be destroyed. So, no pressure.
Equal parts Douglas Adams and FM radio count down, Space Opera hilarious, tragic, and breathtakingly intelligent. Valente’s novel examines the utopian science fiction trope of the society that is not merely scientifically advanced but culturally advanced, and twists it to great effect. Continuing her style from previous work like Radiance and The Refrigerator Monologs, She once again has invented entire pop cultures out of whole cloth to both satirize and celebrate parts of our own. In this case, it is the Eurovision song contest, a post-War signing competition that functions much like the Olympics but run by record labels. As someone who likes the idea of Eurovision more than the actual glitzy performances, I expected to be lost in a sea of references, but that was not the case. Outside of a few section quotes and an explanation in the acknowledgements, there is little actual mention, and you don’t need previous experience going in.
Valente structures her novel in her own instantly recognizable style, shifting between the history of the contest and the competing alien cultures and the story of the Absolutes Zeros from their first show to the intergalactic stage. She does more telling than showing, and the non-linear style can be disorienting if that isn’t your thing, but she pays it all off beautifully in the end.
Space Opera is a glittering cavalcade of brilliantly conceived big-idea science fiction, winking satire, and bold, unflinching cultural criticism. It is very well executed, and you should probably be reading it right now. It’s available from the usual suspects.

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Hugh Likes Video Games – Fire Emblem Heroes

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Fire Emblem Heroes
Published by Nintendo
Played on AndroidSQ_SmartDevice_FireEmblemHeroes

The Skinny – Fire Emblem Heroes is a slimmed down but still surprisingly deep mobile version of Nintendo’s long-running tactical RPG.

Strategy RPG’s have a tendency towards being overwrought. With huge casts, complicated game systems, and drawn-out battles, they are considered investments in time and attention, and, indeed, their most ardent fans wouldn’t have it any other way. This is why I was slightly dubious when I heard Nintendo was bringing their Fire Emblem series to IOS and Android phones. But Nintendo has done an excellent job of threading the needle between shallow nostalgia bomb and dense war simulator with aplomb.

The story is pretty paper-thin, mostly just an excuse to bring the different games in the franchise together, but it does well enough. The game takes place in the kingdom of Askr, a land blessed with portals to other worlds. The player is the latest such recruit in Askr’s somewhat endless war against their neighbors, the evil empire of Embla. The royals of Askr wear white and value friendship, the Emblians all wear black and have emotional problems, etc. etc. Both sides have put heroes from these other worlds, which align with the various games in the Fire Emblem series, under contract to fight on their side, and the only way for them to be set free is to be defeated on the battlefield. The story is a bit slight, but I personally find the idea that all these characters are appearing because its in their contract a fantastic, if probably unintentional, meta-joke at the heart of the game.
The combat itself is fast-paced and shrinks down elegantly. The vast swaths of movement the regular series is known for are shrunk down to just a few spaces, and your army is reduced to teams of four, although you can fairly easily swap out teams or team members from your roster. The roster itself is a typical sort of random card pack selecting you see in many free-to-play mobile games, but ‘Heroes’ gives you plenty of currency to fill out your army without resorting to converting your real-life cash to orbs. Combat relies on the traditional Fire Emblem sword-axe-spear battle system, but new players shouldn’t have any trouble picking it up. It strips the system down to manageability, but still provides enough expanded difficulty modes, asynchronous multiplayer, and challenge modes for veteran players.
Although the story mode is paper-thin and incredibly anime, the art assets look great, and scale well. Fire Emblem Heroes might not be the next revolution in game design, but its a great way to pass the time if you’re looking for something a bit different than the run-of-the-mill puzzle game. You can find it for free in the IOS or Google Play app stores.

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Last Saturday was Free Comic Book Day!  I stopped in at Haley’s Comics, my local shop, and picked up a few of the plethora of titles on offer.  Here’s what I thought:

Gronk: A Monster’s Story, written and drawn by Katie Cook

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This was a cute all-ages monster comic from the publisher of the outstanding “Princeless.”  It was certainly adorable and clever, with a little bit of snark thrown in.  The backup story featured talking house cats fighting robots, so it had that going for it.  It looks like a great book for younger readers.
Mercury Heat, written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by Omar Francia

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At the exact opposite end, we have this gritty cyborg cop drama set on the inner-most planet.  I’m pretty much onboard for any of Gillen’s projects, but the art on this one is slick and the relatively simple bust presented in the comic has a lot of intriguing world building behind it.  It certainly has the first ultra-violent cop protagonist I’ve ever seen that claims “Murder She Wrote” as a defining influence.  I’ll be picking up the series proper when it starts in July.
Secret Wars #0, written by Jonathan Hickman and drawn by paul Renaud

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A preview of Marvel’s big summer event, the story is a meeting between a bunch of super-genius children, the Future Foundation, recapping what led up to the potential end of the world, and trying to build an arc to survive it.  I still have no idea what’s happening, but the backup story, an imagined fight between the Avengers and the man-eating anime giants from “Attack on Titan” is a hoot.
All-New, All-Different Avengers, written by Mark Waid and drawn by Mahmud Asrar

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The last of the four free books, this is apparently a look at the post-Secret Wars Avengers team.  And I can’t wait for it.  Rather than playing it safe, Waid is constructing a team built of all the new and legacy characters that have made waves in the last few years.  Led by the new Captain America, (formerly the Falcon,) the team includes Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan,) Spider-Man (Miles Morales,) and the new lady Thor.  It’s a short story about the three new teenage members attempting to stop a bank robbery and learning a lesson about what the team means.  It’s a little schmaltzy, but I’m certainly interested in the series when it comes out this fall.
In addition to physical books, free comics were also available through Comixology, including an “Atomic Robo” story which I won’t spoil, but includes Dr. Dinosaur being his usual insane self, and is my pick of the small collection of the books I was able to sample this year.

Hugh Likes Podcasts: Ditch Diggers

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Ditch Diggers

Hosted by Mur Lafferty and Matt F. Wallace

www.matt-wallace.com/tag/ditchdiggers

Ditch Diggers

“Ditch Diggers” is a different kind of writing podcast. Hosted by Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace, with special guests from throughout the SF writing community, this is less a writing podcast and more a writing-adjacent business advice show.

The Campbell award-winning Lafferty is perhaps best known as the host of “I Should Be Writing,” an also excellent podcast featuring encouragement and practical advice for aspiring writers. This is the other show, where she gets more down to earth with business advice for writers who know how to put one word in front of the other. Co-host Matt Wallacer contributes his own expertise as a novelist and screenwriter. The podcast actually springs from a segment on ISBW called “Good Cop, Bad Cop,” in which the pair answered letters, with Mur offering encouragement, and Matt giving over the top criticism.

While they aren’t in character on this podcast, “Ditch Diggers” has the same energy as those old segments, and the banter between the two is a delight. They’ve also featured guest authors, including Kameron Hurley and Chuck Wendig, to talk about their career successes and failures.

While “Ditch Diggers” is geared towards writers looking for career advice, it is still an entertaining listen if you aren’t looking for an agent or an editor. It’s a peek behind the the curtain into the real world of how books get from manuscript to bookstore shelf, with a pair of wry, witty hosts who work well together. “Ditch Diggers” can be found at their website, via Mur Lafferty’s site, or in your favorite podcatcher. It’s all the fun of going to a writer’s convention, without the bar tab.