In May, I played just four games but it was an interesting selection. For Entertainium, I reviewed two new games. Miasma Chronicles is the new release from the makers of Mutant Year Zero, and is another strong entry in the turn-based tactics genre. Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun was on my most anticipated list for 2023, but still surprised me with its quality - indie studio Auroch Digital did a fantastic job combining the 40K licence with the boomer shooter.
As ever, I also played some older games. I revisited Dishonored for the first time in a while, celebrating Arkane’s glory days at the same time as they entered their darkest hour with the disastrous recent release of Redfall. What took up the bulk of my gaming time in May, though, was the open-world deep South crime experience of Mafia III. I got completely sucked into its compelling story and open-ended gameplay, and hope to cover it more in due course.
It’s a common question - if you could travel in time, to what point in history would you go? For Karl Glogauer, the protagonist of Behold the Man, the answer is never in doubt. After meeting an eccentric scientist who has devised an improbable time machine, the troubled Karl volunteers to visit 28 AD in a bid to meet Jesus Christ. He discovers that the Nazarene can barely speak, let alone save mankind. Karl takes an extraordinary step and becomes the Jesus we know from the Bible - despite knowing where his actions will lead.
Originally published as a novella in New Worlds magazine in 1966, Behold the Man is one of the most bold and unique of all time travel stories. Michael Moorcock won the Nebula Award for Best Novella for his work, and subsequently extended it into a short novel which was published in 1969. This story is a classic of new wave science fiction, which Moorcock championed as editor of New Worlds at the time. It is a fast-paced and intriguing exploration of religious belief, psychology, and the quest for meaning.
The planet Earth is home to an immense variety of lifeforms, from the tiniest viruses and microbes up to the huge and complex mammals that roam the land and sea. This teeming glut of life is enormously varied, but in one respect it is monotonously uniform - all life on our planet employs a carbon-based biochemistry. For science fiction writers, the various hypothetical types of biochemistry have long been a source of inspiration. Chief amongst these is the notion that somewhere, on another world, life may have arisen that is based not on carbon but instead on another element with some similar properties: silicon.
Originally published in 1985, Sentenced to Prism is the fifth standalone entry in Alan Dean Foster’s long-running series of SF novels set in his Humanx Commonwealth universe. It represents a novel-length exploration of the idea of silicon-based life. The book depicts a distant planet that is rife with crystalline creatures, and looks into the implications this would have on body type, survival strategies, reproduction, communication, and the nature of intelligence. In classic Foster style, the novel is not only a headlong leap into alternative biology but is also an exciting adventure story about human survival on a bizarre and hostile world.
It’s another double edition of this regular look back at the games I’ve played recently. This instalment covers both March and April of 2023, when I reviewed two new games - one of them in early access - and revisited another batch of older releases.
Those two releases cover both the sublime and the ridiculous. For the former, I got the chance to play the slender but stellar early access release of Supplice, the retro shooter made by Doom modding veterans. On the ridiculous front is Gun Jam, a bitterly disappointing and frankly unfinished rhythm shooter that adds nothing at all to that nascent sub-genre.
The older games covered this time are a varied lot; I replayed two of my personal favourites, in the form of third-person action games Oni (2001) and Urban Chaos (1999). I tackled the controversial but very well-made “stealth strategy” War Mongrels (2021), and finished Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011) for the third time. Possibly the highlight of these months, though, was playing the 2020 definitive editions of gangster sagas Mafia (2002) and Mafia II (2010).
Scottish author Iain M. Banks has been much missed since he passed away in 2013. For science fiction readers, he made a tremendous impact with his Culture series: ten novels about a powerful, post-scarcity civilization set on a vast, interstellar scale. The first novel in the series to be published - and Banks’ first SF book - was Consider Phlebas, in April 1987.
While this sprawling space opera does introduce the Culture, it does so in an unusual way. It focuses not on the citizens of the Culture, or on its starships or institutions. Instead, the protagonist of the book is an implacable enemy of the Culture, working to secure its defeat in a galaxy-spanning war. By taking this approach, Banks worked to not only help readers view the Culture from outside, but also to subvert the established tropes of the space opera. In the process, Banks began an iconic series that occupied much of the rest of his working life; and helped to revitalise that same genre.
While few Banks fans regard Consider Phlebas to be among the best of the series, it is an exciting SF adventure and a strong start to one of the most important and revered series in the whole genre.
By the time that Kate Wilhelm died in March 2018, she was arguably best known as a writer of mystery novels. She had first come to prominence, though, through her science fiction and had a long career in that genre beginning in 1956. Her career in SF peaked in the 1970s, when she contributed to the long-running Orbit series of anthologies, and taught at the famous Clarion Workshop for aspiring SF and fantasy writers. In both of these endeavours, she worked alongside her husband, Damon Knight (1922 - 2002).
In 1974, Wilhelm published the novella “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” in Orbit 15. Wilhelm added two further sections to the story, and published the result as a novel of the same title in 1976. Dealing with human cloning, community, and individuality in the aftermath of a global catastrophe, the novel proved to be the peak of Wilhelm’s success. It won the Hugo, Locus, and Jupiter Awards for Best Novel in 1977, and has come to be seen as one of the best SF novels focused on the topic of cloning.
Today, Where Late the Sweet Birds sang is by far the most visible and well-known of Wilhelm’s SF works - likely due to its awards success. While it is often said that its outsized profile distracts from Wilhelm’s accomplished work in short fiction, it is an intriguing post-apocalyptic tale in its own right.
Oni is almost the definition of a “singular game”. It received no sequel, it was not influential, and it was the only project its development team ever worked on. What it does have is a distinct vision and a unique gameplay style that can’t be found anywhere else, even over 20 years later.
Oni was made by a short-lived California satellite studio set up by Bungie; for that reason it is often called “Bungie’s forgotten game”. But Oni is far more than just a footnote in the history of the company that made Halo - it is one of the most cruelly under-recognised games of its era. In its original trailer, Oni was touted as “an action game like no other” - and that claim still holds true.
By 1991, the Scottish author Iain M. Banks was very much one of the rising stars of science fiction. He had already published three SF novels: Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), and Use of Weapons (1990). While Banks was solidifying his reputation, his earlier short fiction was not widely available and the collection The State of the Art was published to rectify this.
The collection contains eight stories, all originally published in the brief period between 1987 and 1989. The book could have become a relatively minor part of Banks’ bibliography, but instead it has an important place. This is largely because it contains three short stories concerned with The Culture - the author’s acclaimed post-scarcity SF setting for most of his genre novels. The short stories “A Gift From the Culture” and “Descendant”, as well as the novella “The State of the Art” are therefore essential for anyone interested in that setting.
What follows is a brief overview of all eight stories featured in The State of the Art, which serves as a good, brief introduction to Banks’ work - including the iconic Culture.
For a while now, 2023 has been talked about as the year when strategy games make a comeback. February was the first big test of that thesis, as two major games came out of the gates. I covered both The Settlers: New Allies and Company of Heroes 3 for Entertainium, with decidedly mixed results. It’s fair to say that Ubisoft’s fortunes are unlikely to be revived by the first Settlers game in over a decade; but Relic’s Company of Heroes sequel is a fantastic return to the front, albeit one with some real rough edges.
Also in February, I reviewed the Japanese action game Wanted: Dead, a project which seemed to consist almost entirely of rough edges. It’s very crudely made indeed, and spoils a potentially interesting premise with some horribly executed combat mechanics. This is as good a time as any to remind you of how great Evil West is, and how it delivers expertly on its bid to recapture the glory of mid-2000s action games.
As a counterpoint to all the warfare, I spent a good chunk of February playing the zen-like railroad puzzle game Train Valley 2 (2019) - a fact which surprises even me. The other older game I played during the month was a true classic: the genre-bending cult favourite fronted by Vin Diesel, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay (2004).
One interesting thread that runs through the history of science fiction is the changing depiction of Mars. As science has gradually expanded our knowledge of the “red planet”, fiction has changed to accommodate new information. Key novels like The War of the Worlds (1897), A Princess of Mars (1912), The Martian Chronicles (1950), the Mars trilogy (1992 - 1996) and The Martian (2011) all chart this shifting perspective.
An important milestone in this history is the flyby conducted by the Mariner 4 mission in 1965. The visit cemented the new understanding of a lifeless, desolate Mars so thoroughly that stories about the planet can be divided into pre-Mariner and post-Mariner eras. After the 1960s, some writers still wrote nostalgic stories that explored the romantic, adventurous, and inhabited Mars that never was - as in the anthology Old Mars (2013) edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.
Arthur C. Clarke’s novel The Sands of Mars occupies an interesting and unusual position in this history. One of the author’s earliest books, it was published in 1951, long before the Mariner 4 flyby. However, its portrayal of the red planet is much closer to reality than other books of its era. In keeping with his hard science fiction approach, Clarke adhered to the emerging ideas about Mars. This book deals thoughtfully with the challenges of reaching Mars, of surviving on the surface, and even of making it more Earth-like.
In the wider context of Clarke’s glittering career, The Sands of Mars is a minor novel. It is an interesting one, though, for a number of reasons - not only due to its view of Mars. Because its main character is himself a science fiction author, it has a kind of meta quality. It can also be said to serve as a kind of spiritual prequel to Clarke’s later book set on Earth’s moon, Earthlight (1955). Finally, it represents a prototype more generally for the author’s later books, which present a similar positivist view of humankind’s future.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.