Secondhand Manifestos: Quick Thoughts on Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia


In case you’re wondering, the Constructivist cover was the publisher’s idea. Not a surprise, really.

It appears to have accidentally turned into Jackboot Month here in the Dolmen. Today’s subject, Bruce Sterling’s 2016 novella Pirate Utopia, is something I literally found out about yesterday and spent a few hours reading cover to cover. I’ve never been a big fan of Sterling,  so I half-expected the story to set my teeth on edge. Much to my surprise, however, I actually found it to be a rather amusing little romp.

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The Bard in Jackboots: Richard III (1995)


Like everyone in the English-speaking world, I had to read my share of Shakespeare during my formative years. I spent three years in high school with the Bard, making my way through Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth. I didn’t hate the time I spent with those plays, but it was like so much of school. You memorize something long enough to do the final exam, then it just washes away. Lately, however, I’ve been developing an appreciation for Shakespearian adaptations that modernize the settings but keep the original language. Hardly an original concept, true, but there’s something to be said about keeping the poetry of Shakespeare’s original work, but putting it into a twentieth-century frame of reference that lets the work throw off the weight of centuries and connect with the audience, perhaps letting them see a glimmer of what the plays meant when they were new. As most of these adaptations I’ve watched are film adaptations of stage plays, some of the slipperiness of setting common to the theater remains in the film, often turning these stories into immortal fables whose lessons can apply to every era.

Now, I personally have a taste for Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays, so my list of favorite adaptations includes such lights as Ralph Fiennes’ Balkanized Coriolanus (2011), Julie Taymor’s gonzo Titus (1999), and Rupert Goold’s Stalinist Macbeth (2010), about which more later. However, my favorite one of these adaptations has to be Richard Loncraine’s Richard III from 1995, with Sir Ian McKellen in the title role.

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Rereading The War in the Air (1908)


The Battle of the North Atlantic,” the frontspiece for the original 1908 edition of The War in the Air by A.C. Michael

One summer morning, sometime in the 1910s, the good men and women of New York City awaken to the sound of engines thrumming in the morning air. Craning their heads, they peek out of their windows to see the sky crowded with ominous hulks, great gasbags bearing the eagle insignia of the Kingdom of Germany. From loudspeakers a message is sent: give up! Your fleet in the North Atlantic has been routed, and you have no aeroplanes that can reach our zeppelins. Surrender your city, and no more lives need be endangered. To drive the point home, several airships shift and angle their way to positions over the Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall, Wall Street, and a few other landmarks. As one they open their payload doors, raining tonnes of high-explosive bombs on the structures below.

A scene from some modern steampunk novel? No, this is an old nightmare, almost 110 years old by my count. It is a pivotal sequence from The War in the Air, H. G. Wells’ serialized novel, written for The Strand all the way back in 1908. It’s a novel I have had on my mind recently, so I spent the last week rereading my old water-damaged copy. As it turned out, it did not awaken the same passions it once had in me, but it did clarify my thinking on a few points.

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Hard to Be A (Fictional) God


A portrait of General Turyin Mulaghesh, protagonist of City of Blades, by Chanh Quach. You can see more of her Divine Cities‘ artwork here.

After a long absence, I’ve made a return to reviewing for Strange Horizons with my latest piece, a discussion of City of Blades, the second book in what has become Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Divine Cities trilogy. Longtime readers of the blog may be slightly surprised that I am a lot more positive about this entry in the series than I was its predecessor. While I discuss the reasons at length in the review, one of the key reasons was that I went into City of Blades knowing what to expect. City of Stairs didn’t turn out to be the novel I thought it would be, and I was critical because of that. We all have our weaknesses, and that happens to be one of mine.

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The Parts, But Not the Whole: Thoughts on Dishonored 2


Over the years, I’ve found that when I fall in love with some new show or movie or game, my passion burns like Icarus, a brief all-consuming flash followed by oblivion. Every once and a while, however, I find something that sticks with me, that resonates enough to keep me coming back year after year. The first Dishonored, a game I talked about at length some years back, was just one of these slower-burning loves. I suppose it was a perfect storm of themes of images. The game was set in an apocalyptic setting yet was not about the apocalypse. It posited an uncomfortably Gnostic world where God was absent and a whimsical demiurge was making a mess of things. It was set in a city that mixed three centuries’ worth of technological and architectural influence, yet never read as a neo-Victorian stereotype. It was a brave new world, and it gave you a bunch of tools to explore it and do what you would to it. It had its down points; the voice cast could have used some better direction, and the writing could have been more responsive to player input, but these weren’t enough to deeply dampen the experience for me. All in all, Dishonored has earned a place on my mantle of favorite video games of all time.

Dishonored 2, on the other hand…

To be honest, it’s hard for me to properly criticize Dishonored 2. A number of the issues of the game were also issues with its predecessor, and there are moments when everything clicks and the game is just a wonderful experience. But even though the individual parts may shine, the mechanism as a whole creaks and groans, in spite of the smoother-than-ever gameplay.

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2016: Look Back and Recoil


Well, it’s happened again: twelve months have gone by, and we’re staring a new year in the face once more. Not many people will be lining up to remember 2016 as a banner year, myself included, and yet I don’t find myself feeling quite as down about things the way most everyone else is. To properly explain why, I’m going to pull back the curtain a bit and talk about a few things I haven’t discussed with anyone outside of my family and a few friends.

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Mud, Blood, and Shovel Bludgeonings – Thoughts on Battlefield 1


A few weeks ago, I dropped a bushel of money on a brand spanking new computer to replace my old machine, a loyal beast who had sadly been outpaced by the demands of modern video games and was starting to get loud and rattley. As it happened, I got my new machine around Black Friday, which meant I ended up looking around at the deals on Steam and Origin. As it turned out, Battlefield 1, the new multiplayer shooter by EA DICE set during the First World War, had a price drop that made buying it a thinkable notion. I don’t play multiplayer shooters anymore, but I do enjoy seeing WWI depicted in video games, and I was entranced by the launch trailer, scored to that immortal soldier’s ballad, “Seven Nation Army (Glitch Mob Remix).”

Well, it turned out the game had a single-player campaign, and I had little common sense, so I bought it, and just this afternoon I spent six hours playing through the whole thing. As you can imagine, I had thoughts.

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