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Hugh Likes Video Games: Subsurface Circular

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Subsurface Circular
Developed by Mike Bithell
Published by Anthill Games
Nintendo Switch

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The Skinny – A short but satisfying trip.

Subsurface Circular is an old-school concept in some flashy new clothes. Quintessentially at text adventure, players assume the role of a detective that works on a subway train for robots, the eponymous Subsurface Circular. When the character goes off-programming to help a Tek (the game’s term for Asimo-like sentient humanoid robots) You’ll question passengers to get to the bottom of a mystery at the heart of your unnamed future city.
Gameplay consists entirely of text boxes and dialog choices as you try and get to solve the case, as well as a few simple puzzles the game puts in your path. The train car and its riders are lovingly rendered in high def, and the game uses the Switch’s gyroscope to let you look around a bit, but it is all just set dressing for the text, as shiny and gorgeous as it looks.
The plot is certainly engaging, but Bithell released it as a part of a series of ‘shorts,’ and it is quite short. Even taking a leisurely pace, the game can easily be finished in a two-hour sitting. It is quite forgiving with the puzzles, and while you can make choices, they don’t seem to have much impact on the game, or create much in the way of replay value. While the economy of the resources is quite clever, I would have liked to have solved a few more mysteries, but the game is propelled by its plot to a quick end.
There is a quite cool Easter egg for fans of Bithell’s award-winning “Thomas Was Alone,” which I won’t spoil here, and the Teks are all both convincingly human and utterly alien looking. They’re breathtaking to watch. There is also a clever bit of design where the soundtrack to each chapter is provided by Teks wearing earphones, their too-loud music pushing out into the car alongside atmospheric sounds of air brakes and sliding doors.
At around five dollars, “Subsurface Circular” is well worth the price tag for an evening of Robot Noire on the loop line. It is available for Nintendo Switch as well as Steam and IOS devices.

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Hugh Likes Fiction: A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe

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A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe
Written by Alex White
Published by Orbit

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The Skinny: Spaceship is Magic

Alex White’s new novel, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe is a seamless Sci-Fi/Fantasy adventure about the misfit crew of a smuggler ship caught in a galactic conspiracy. White is a remarkable stylistic juggler, matching magic and high-tech space opera in a believable, lived in universe filled with despicable anti-heroes you can’t help rooting for.
When well-to-do racing star Nilah Brio witnesses a bizarre murder on the track, her only hope may rest on the dubious shoulders of fighter pilot turned con-artist Elizabeth “Boots” Ellsworth. But after selling fraudulent treasure maps for years, have they stumbled on the real thing? And more importantly, can they avoid the powerful forces on their trail long enough to get it?
White’s novel is an action-packed thrill ride of an adventure novel. But what really impressed me is the well thought out universe White creates for his characters to bust their way through. The magic system is intricately crafted, and feels like a real part of the world rather than set dressing. The technology of the setting uses magic in a number of surprising and delightful ways. Each character has their own magic, of varying types, and they can use it like a signature, or to interact with technology, or even fire weapons. Everyone except Boots, that is, who is one of the rare people born without magic. It’s a nice bit of the story that builds the world and characters in interesting ways.
With this first novel, White offers us a character-focused look into a compelling fantasy future. Fans of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet will find a lot to like in this scrappy crew of adventurers, with plenty of space-faring action and interplanetary politics to satisfy the most hard-core old school Space Opera fan. You can find A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe at your local independent bookstore, or from the usual digital suspects. I heartily recommend it.

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.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Killing Is My Business

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Killing Is My Business

Written by Adam Christopher

Published by Tor

The Skinny: Christopher’s follow-up to Made To Kill is another rollicking robot noir set in 1960’s L.A.

Ray Electromatic is the last functioning robot in1960’s Los Angeles, and he’s the world’s only robot private detective. At least, that’s what his business cards say. His real job is assassination. With his trusty computer/business partner Ada, he finds his target and gets the job done. But when Rays targets start turning up dead or missing before he can complete the job, he starts to wonder who he can really trust.

Christopher returns to his post-robotics Los Angeles for a second novel that is as much of a noire delight as the first. Like all good detective novels, it doesn’t rely on having read Made To Kill, while pushing Ray’s story forward in some fun and interesting ways. The author has a knack for voice, and he balances the 60’s sci-fi and noire elements superbly. Ray’s momento-like limitation, the fact that his memory tape only lasts 24 hours, is used to good effect in this story, and requires Ray to engage in a fair amount of trust, something that always goes awry in a noire world.

Killing Is My Business is a cracking read, and you can pick it up from your local bookstore, or download a copy from Amazon.

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Fiction: The Halloween Gig

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“What the p’nong is this?” I said, slamming the plastic crate onto polished a synthsteel table. Amy, the bartender, turned around from where she was hanging some kind of banner.
“It’s your costume for tonight, sweetie.” She went back to the hanging, a pattern of orange circles, white ovals, and black crescents, each with a crude printed face. The shapes vibrated gently in station gravity.
“Costume for what?” I picked up the box with my lower arms and riffled through it with my upper ones. It was a length of cheap black plasticloth. I examined it for a minute before figuring out it was a sort of cloak, with holes for my head and all six appendages. The sleeves were all tattered and trailing, and the hood was so deep my head wouldn’t even be visible. It seemed a terrible choice for a musician.
“It’s Halloween, silly!” She didn’t even turn this time. “You agreed to play holidays.”
“Proper holidays,” I said, grimacing. “The Eclipse Festival, Harmonics Night, Harvest of Poetry.” I knew I was being petulant, but I made an attempt. Humans expected it from their musicians.
“It’s a big party night on Earth, we’re expecting a lot of traffic, so wear the costume.” That was when I noticed her face paint. It was a vivid shade of green. She was wearing an impractical black gown instead of her usual ship suit. A pointed black hat rested on the bar.
“Then why haven’t you cleaned properly?” I asked, taking in the room for the first time. The counters and corners were covered with wispy strands of white plant fiber. The stage was dusty, and the edifice of a ruin had been left there.
“Those are decorations, Ch’Brun.”
“They’re unsettling.”
“I was going for spooky.”
“Just what kind of holiday is this?” I asked. My elders thought I was crazy to run off to human space chasing gigs. Sometimes I agreed with them.
“For some humans, it’s a day of remembrance for the dead, but for others it’s a day for dressing up, eating candy, and getting scared.”
“Wait, your civilization frightens itself for fun?” I wasn’t surprised. Humanity seemed to have a collective fetish for destructive behavior. But since I was already working in an establishment that served weak poison as a recreational activity, this didn’t seem out of character for the species. “That’s so human. Give me a few standard hours to research and I’ll see what I can do.”
A few hours later, I took the stage. It was dark, it was grimy, and the house was full, just as she said. There were humans in all kinds of costumes, mostly mythological archetypes like Amy’s witch and a variety of living corpses. Humans have a ton of hangups about death, I guess. There were also costumes based on characters from popular entertainment programs, historical figures, and even elaborate jokes. It was all very weird, but it made a kind of sense. The humans came from a world with only one sun, which meant they had as much darkness as light. They lived in a world that developed scientific understanding of the universe relatively late, and was delayed by a few notable collapses of civilization. They had a talent for stories. So they found ways to laugh at the darkness. They practiced scaring themselves so they wouldn’t be afraid.
I fluttered my robe dramatically as I sat down on the fake step and pulled out my instrument. It was a fretted, stringed instrument similar to human ones, but it had multiple resonating chambers and was meant to be played with all six hands. Amy nick-named it the Ultra-Cello, and it kind of stuck, although my music teacher back home would probably have fits if they heard. In deference to the holiday, I had placed a representation of a human skull over the pegbox.
I flourished my arms, waiting for silence, then began to perform an ancient traditional hymn I discovered in my afternoon’s research. I sang out, a voice shouting against the darkness. The crowd cheered in recognition and glee, and sang along with religious enthusiasm.
“I was working in the lab late one night…”

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Cover photo by Derek Hatfield, used under a Creative Commons, Attribution license.

Hugh Likes Fiction: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Written by Becky Chambers
Published by Harper Voyager

Sometimes the best Science Fiction is quiet and thoughtful. The genre is often buttressed by “Big Ideas” and zap-gun adventure, but my favorite stories are the slower, more character-focused novels. These are novels like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, or Nathan Lowell’s Quarter Share. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is squarely in this sub-genre, and it excels.
Rosemary Harper is a privileged girl from the upper crust of Martian society. When she decides to escape her past and society, she takes a job as a clerk on a long-haul wormhole boring ship, The Wayfarer. The misfit crew of the ship is completely different from her former life.
While the story is framed by Rosemary’s story, it is a picaresque novel following the misadventures of the small, tightly knit crew. And the book shines in this respect. The crew of The Wayfarer are efficiently constructed, and for the most part, incredibly likable characters. From Dr. Chef, one of the last survivors of an alien species that destroyed itself in a ceaseless civil war, to Kizzy, the wild-child engineer, this book is filled with unforgettable, engaging characters that treat each other like family rather than coworkers. The upcoming Star Trek series will be lucky to be half so charming.
Chambers’ galaxy is also well presented and engaging. The places that The Wayfarer travels are all detailed and iconic. She also creates a galaxy where humans aren’t top dogs. Having poisoned our home planet and settled into a pair of bickering factions, Humanity is a minor player in galactic politics. This is always a refreshing position to take in Sci Fi, and it works really well here.
This book may not be for everyone. Chambers skips past a lot of the things traditional SF banks on. We hear about massive space battles and galactic discourse in the same way the characters do: Through news and rumors, with small hints at chewier, bigger plot elements throughout the book. This is a small, personal story, and Chambers tells it well. But if you go in expecting Senate hearings or military pomp and blaster fire, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is available from Amazon and other online booksellers, or from your local bookstore.

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Hugh Likes Fiction: Six Wakes

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Six Wakes
Written by Mur Lafferty
Publishedd by Orbit
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Six Wakes is the ultimate Sci-Fi locked room mystery. The six-person crew of the Dormire wakes up in the cloning lab. They are staring at their own corpses, with no memory of what happened, or anything else, for the last 24 years of their interstellar journey. Light-years from Earth, they’ll have to figure out what happened and how to survive when at least one of the crew is a murderer.
This novel is a story of paranoia, survival, and the ethics of cloning and life extension. Mur’s story is full of rich characters, drama, and unexpected twists. But what I found most interesting were the choices Lafferty made in building her world. The premise hangs on some very hard science astrophysics to build the sense of tension and isolation. This isn’t a quick warp through the galaxy. The characters have been stuck together for a very long time, and they have a much, much longer way to go. The cloning technology, however, is very soft SF. It’s a surprising choice, considering how much of the story, and the mystery, relies on it.
While she never breaks her own rules, Lafferty focuses on the ethics and moral issues of life extension, and what a world where some people will effectively live forever and others won’t, means, and the paradox of the ultimate revenge being reduced to a minor inconvenience. The cloning tech, however, is based on a movie-producer’s idea of how hacking works, and literal glowing goo. I wasn’t particularly bothered by this choice, but hard SF purists may consider it cheating.
Six Wakes is a chiller of a Sci-Fi mystery filled with interesting ideas and plenty of tension. You can find it at your local bookstore, or in print and ebook from Amazon.

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