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I picked up a paperback from my library’s new books shelf. Turns out this is a teen/middle-grade adventure story compendium. 331 pages. Several science fiction stories. There is a promo for Guys Read, a library of books to help guys read at the end. Each story is about short novella length, with a drawn greyscale illustration at the start. Most feature boy protagonists (BtGG has a girl protagonist).

Percy Jackson and the Singer of Apollo by Rick Riordan – Percy Jackson is a demigod. His father is Poseidon, god of the sea. Having supernatural powers seems cool but Percy’s life is full of god-sized egos and recalcitrant monsters.

Bouncing the Grinning Goat by Shannon Hale – At home Spark spends all her time doing chores and looking after the younger children. But she longs to escape boring domestic work for adventure. One day she borrows her brother’s sword and armour and runs away from home.

The Scout by D.J. MacHale – A longer story (52 pages). Scouts wear uniform. Scouts follow the leader. Scouts get to travel in rocket ships to explore far away planets. It seems like Kit, a trainee scout, is on a wilderness survival course but there is a twist. In the ending there is a parallel between the protagonist’s world and tribal regions of Pakistan. For readers who draw the parallel, the Scout condones drone attacks and condones killing children (families are erased from the Scout).

Rise of the RoboShoesTM by Tom Angleberger – Short funny with comical illustrations about walking aids that get an idea for world domination! Unable to walk, the fall of humans is assured! But there could be another sartorial contender on the horizon.

The Dirt on Our Shoes by Neal Shusterman – Funny and gross story of colonising a new planet, by one means or another.

Plan B by Rebecca Stead – Amusing story from the perspective of an alien family masquerading as people to spy on Earth. The aliens aren’t perfect at pretending to be humans so they sometimes make mistakes and have to remind each other to breath.

A Day in the Life by Shaun Tan – a short graphic story, each page is a line-shaded fantastic life scene with a caption.

The Klack Bros. Museum by Kenneth Oppel – Ghost story. When young Luke is delayed between stops on a railway journey, his father suggests that they visit a creepy museum.

The Warlords of Recess by Eric Nylund – Charming children’s story about an alien invasion of an elementary school. A rule-bound Alien Empire set their sights on Earth. Conquest rule 39 requires that alien warriors win three battles against the Eathlings before the Aliens may conquer Earth. Mistaking 12-year-old pupils outside at recess in an Elementary School for trained combat warriors, the alien warriors land and begin gunking kids with sticky green slime. The fate of the Earth depends on Josh and Tony, two geeky kids watching from the sidelines – do the aliens have a weakness that they can exploit to save the Earth?

Frost and Fire by Rad Bradbury – The longest novella. A stunning imaginative portrayal of a quickened life on an alien planet. Some stretching vocabulary.

A male polar bear

A polar bear (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wild beasts are the improbable instruments of Nature’s wrath in this sensational eco-horror graphic novel (written by Emilio Ruiz and illustrated by Ana Miralles) of polar bears driven to attack man by melting ice caps and loss of food resources. In one dramatic scene, Alaskans huddle in fear as an articulated restaurant car is overturned and looted by massed monsters. Some dialogue didn’t seem apt for an Arctic setting.

In the West, mature children are expected to leave the family home and make their own way in the world; without their mothers providing food for them like infants. Westerners don’t think of this as mothers abandoning children; westerners think of it has children becoming adults. In this story, the analogous (apparently) common practice of polar bear mothers leaving home so that polar bear children can grow into their own lives is portrayed as abandonment by the mother – a misogynistic slant. It’s understandable that a newly separated child can feel lonely or abandoned, but while many talking polar bears are depicted, the work never takes the opportunity to give the opinion of a polar bear mother.

I read a review copy from the publisher.

Autumn’s Daughter is a short hypertext story made in Undum/Vorple. Text can be enlarged nicely. Auto-scrolling (automatic focus on choices) can take text off the screen prematurely. A log of the story remains on the screen after each choice. No option to share the story. I couldn’t find a way to undo choices or to restart (but reloading the web page goes to the title screen). It was a little frustrating having to go back to the beginning to try different paths.

There is a sidebar with a “character” status.

You are young and beautiful.

I was under the impression that the position of a village girl in South Asia is much like Cinderellaput upon and abused might be more true to life.

It was difficult to place the genre at first, send a man to evaluate a girl’s game: fictionally raped in marriage, frequently raped, a murderer, a suicide – he unerringly picks out the most violent fates. Girl’s game?! It’s not a literary read. Bad outcomes for permitted marriage and a possible romantic ending for elopement read like a polemic. A sort of grim fairy tale or wake-up call for rural girls drifting into arranged marriage. Can many village girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan can read English? But it could be translated.

I played release “1.1”. Sometimes status didn’t update during the ending so that, in seeming bad taste, you could see “You are hopeful” for a violent ending. The risk associated with trusting a strange woman is explored (for a moment the player takes the role of fate in an uncanny choice) – but although the heterosexual romance can fail I would have liked a choice which showed that running away with a man isn’t a guarantee against an abusive marriage. In general, chance has a big role in life but not in the story.

The endings were unbalanced; one so abstract that it could have been a sweat shop or a brothel. I thought that a girl’s game would refrain from being explicit but other endings tell of recurring marital rape, show personally committing spouse murder, or show and esteem personal suicide.

Another interactive fiction competition entry, Impostor Syndrome is a static hypertext story in which you play the role of an IT worker presenting a talk who is subject to the titular condition.

Given the anxiety and self-doubt of impostor syndrome, the story is understandably earnest and humourless. It is written in the second person “You see… You feel…” like most interactive fiction, but I think I would have liked it better written in the first person. The pseudonymous author captures nerd culture well with comments on a fictional programming language and amusing thinly-veiled references to tech companies e.g. Goggle.

Make sure to try all the choices. I often find it difficult to detect implicit choice points in a mostly linear narrative. There may be many choices at a node; some are just cycles returning to the node; the expectation is that there is one choice that escapes to the rest of the narrative as is usual in a linear narrative; but, rarely, there is more than one exit when there is a branch in the narrative.

Narrative branches are more likely near the end (imagine how frustrating it would be if your first choice out of a hundred tacitly determined if you have a good or bad ending) but in the first play it can be hard to estimate progress – although where you are in the story offers a clue, atemporal choice cycles complicate the relation between playing time and narrative time.

I’ve played about half the 2013 interactive fiction competition entries, and Coloratura by Lynnea Glasser is the best so far. The narrative is a science fiction story with strong horror elements. In some horror games you hear of bad things happening in a remote place and you may just meet a horrible monster! In this game, things happen – but you’re close to the action – you’re the monster!

You love nothing better than to sing sing sing! The whole universe sings in pure saturation. But out of timeless bliss comes dissonance. Hurt. Jolted and jostled. Disarranged. You can feel some beings around you but they are benighted. Blind, solitary voices groping in cacophony, colours awry. If only someone would help them! They just need somebeing to reach out…

Coloratura is a full-length parser-based game which can be completed in an hour or two (if you solve all the puzzles). There are HINTs and HELP (you can enter highlighted words in this review into the game as commands). You mostly interact with the game by typing commands to the protagonist like “GO NORTH”, “TOUCH MAN”; and occasionally by asking the protagonist to command another character “CAPTAIN, LISTEN TO ME” (this means that the protagonist should ask the captain to “LISTEN TO ME” i.e. listen to the protagonist). The game reports the result of a command (it might succeed or fail). The game world changes each turn (and as a result of successful commands).

There is a large graphic map provided with the game download. I didn’t find it easy to locate the protagonist on the map – it was not until half way through the game before I could match locations (which the protagonist visited) to those depicted in the map; by then I had stopped looking at the map.

When you type commands in this kind of game, you rely on the game recognising what you want the protagonist to do, and responding aptly. The game’s responses to commands show good intuition from the author or capable testing or both. Serving the player so well demonstrates uncommon mastery. In a departure from convention, the alien protagonist can’t carry things. There are environmental puzzles – when the alien touches some objects, the alien embodies their character e.g. touching a hot thing makes the alien hot; now you can heat something by commanding the alien to touch it. If you’re finding it hard to get started, EXAMINE things mentioned in descriptions, and try TOUCHing things.

There were one or two glitches which escaped editing. There are two protagonists but the WAVE command gives the response for the first protagonist (an alien) even if the second protagonist (a human) is the current protagonist (in the EPILOGUE).

The language was mixed: sometimes creative and beautiful, other times like a bad translation. With a nod to Shyamalan the protagonist is shy and retiring not a bloodthirsty rampager. More cultist than wirehead. The creature’s chromatic sense of human character’s emotions’ is delightful although using the creature’s colour-shifting powers on people was disturbing. I loved the glimpses of a horror story from the reverse perspective. The (best) ending cleaves to the horror theme, a gothic departure from realism which may be a little frustrating for science fiction fans.

I will be surprised if there are more than one or two other entries as good as Coloratura. If you can cope with entering commands to make things happen (and don’t mind an inhuman protagonist who may become sympathetic through the story), I recommend it highly.

The English Civil War and Ancient Greek are radio programmes I listened to, in which the protagonist, a disillusioned or angry man, transgresses social norms for the sake of some cause dear to him.

One day a cavalier walks into a supermarket. Is he the real thing or is his battle a more modern matter?

Cavalier soldier Hals-1624x
In the introduction, a woman describes the pleasure of sitting high in a big tree, while an officious man broadcasts legal threats through a loudspeaker. At first I thought I had the wrong channel or time, but after a minute or two the woman reminisces about stacking shelves in a supermarket, and the day on which something out of the ordinary happened. I gave up after listening to the first half of this drama. I couldn’t believe that the cavalier adapted to the modern world so quickly e.g. How would he know the names of parts of the supermarket? Would a historical cavalier have accepted a woman manager as an authority figure? Why is he shooting at people and holding the staff hostage anyway?

I guess that the “cavalier” is an unbalanced modern man with a personal grudge, perhaps an ex-employee. I fear that employing a random psychopath to express a rant about society isn’t an effective medium for social criticism. Who sees authority in a gun and a fake mantle of tradition? Ludicrously, the ending paints the gunman as some sort of messiah. Blessed are the Peacemakers (a brand of gun)! Apparently the reactionary rant is against supermarkets. There is singing.

Ancient Greek

My patience was exhausted after ten minutes of this forty-five minute radio drama written by Oliver Emanuel. Like The English Civil War, the protagonist commits crimes in the name of some (reactionary?) rant. The first ten minutes introduced some characters and described the crime – a student vandalises a school – but didn’t say anything about the rant thesis. Students are more oppressed than slaves (with luck a slave who runs away can soon become free; a student who escapes is cursed forever). Authoritarian administrations are an easy target. I think “show don’t tell” applies. Radio listeners are fickle. If I don’t know why the drama exists after a good chunk, it failed.

English:

Kennedy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This short story is set in the late 1960s during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a young woman struggles to plan for a future which may not be. Rhona has run away from her relationship problems. At her hotel, she comes to an understanding. I listened to an audio adaptation read by Jilly Bond. The audio was introduced by the period music, Telstar.

English: Telstar 2 satellite Polski: Satelita ...

Telstar 2 satellite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)