A Compelling City on Water Filled with Staggering Human Misery

Splendidly spoiler free review.

Blackfish City is an extraordinary piece of fiction. Sam J. Miller is able to build a world, immerse readers in it, and make them marvel at its strangeness and decaying grandeur. The mysteries that surround the water city of Qaanaaq — its history, technological wonders, and status as the envy of the Sunken World nations — set a riveting stage for the book’s cast of deeply scarred and fascinating characters. The narrative itself is expertly paced and written, giving each character a depth that makes you almost feel their anguish and understand the desperation of their lives in Qaanaaq.

The social and political subtext that is a hallmark of every great piece of speculative fiction is abundant in Blackfish City and often made me think of contemporary parallels without ever beating me over the head with an agenda. It opened my eyes to broader perspectives about different lifestyles, the fallibility of human systems, and the absolute corruption of the soul when survival becomes the only goal.

This book tries to deliver the entire package in a single tale – authentic world, fully-realized characters, compelling narrative, social commentary, unique fantastical elements – and I think in large part it succeeds. I appreciate immensely an author being able to bring a story to life within a single novel and deliver on all these elements. It’s a testament to being able to enthrall readers and give them a story that stays with them, moves them in some way, and becomes a meaningful part of their love of the genre without them having to commit to a ten-book series. *cough* Game of Thrones *cough*

Qaanaaq is a scary place, and it echos the dead nations that preceded it in many insidious ways that aren’t immediately apparent. The squalor and social divides are all the proof that’s needed that the computer programs that run the city are no better than their human programmers. It was absolutely chilling to think that the most ruthless of the old world could rule the new one and use anonymity and hide behind the so-called benevolent computer programs to keep a stranglehold on what was left of the world’s wealth.

Qaanaaq is seen as a successful model forward as the world floods or burns, but those who make it to the floating city find only temporary relief. There is barely enough space for the population, many residents crammed in closet- and box-sized living spaces. A deadly disease the breaks, is sweeping the population and a phantom of the old world, bent on vengeance for the genocide of her people, has arrived.

My favorite parts? Slight spoilers start now…

I was a big fan of Ankit and Kaev. They are both tragic characters, but survivors. Miller isn’t afraid to shatter his characters and it was devastating to see how short lived some of their happiness was. Joy has been in short supply their whole lives and I had a hard time when I realized that part of their tale would not end well.

There is so much sorrow in this book, and Ora and Masaaraq represent the core of this. Their story is arguably the center of the narrative, and they are determined to persevere no matter what. They are symbolic of an older generation under siege but with the strength to help those who come after them. They could represent the philosophy of yin and yang, one fiercely loyal to blood family, the other committed to the human race achieving more harmony.

To get a quick take on all of the book’s main characters, check out my data visualization. It shows the order characters were introduced in the book and a ranking of my favorites. For those who want spoilers, hover on the dots to see some of my analysis of each character. DON’T hover on the dots if you don’t want want spoilers!

4 out of 5 stars (I wish the third act hadn’t been so rushed.)

Happy Reading,

Josh

Blackfish City

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Black Mirror for the Book Crowd

I’m speechless, and a little unnerved. None of these stories seem far fetched and a few might even be plausible in our lifetimes. Some of the best voices in speculative fiction bring their A games to the Forward Collection (free in Amazon Prime Reading).

Read (or listen for free) in any order and prepare to encounter some weighty issues. For fans of plants, AI, humanity, free will, cloning, and quantum computing:)

The image shows my own reading order and ranking for the collection. Click on the picture to explore and find some easter eggs in the data graphic.

Happy Reading! – Josh

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Classic Stories Reimagined

The cynical side of me could say, “Look, people are cashing in on stories in the public domain.” Or I could give some of these a shot and see if they’re worth a read. But please don’t let these be in the vein of the Cinder series. (Sorry, those were just too superficial for me.)

Check out these reworked classics and read more at https://www.tor.com/2020/02/05/23-retellings-of-classic-stories-from-science-fiction-fantasy-authors/

 

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Mexican Gothic Literature? Count Me In

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Data visualization (left) of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work inspired by the cover of her latest novel (right). Click on image to explore books.

I have not read one word of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s written fiction beyond her book titles, so no bogus reviews or recommendations from me.

But I can make an introduction.

I learned of Moreno-Garcia from reading Andrea Gomez’s compelling and thoughtful piece on Tor.com that teased just enough details about the author’s books to make me do some homework. As a fan of speculative fiction I got excited about the author and read more about her background and the scope of her work.

I created a data visualization of the author’s work – inspired by the book cover of her latest novel – in order to figure out where to start reading. I hope the interactive data graphic gives others exposure to this author and lets them try out new genre reads.

One thing that is a little discouraging is that Goodreads had some of the author’s shorter works linked to Amazon that led to a broken web page. If the written fiction of women and minorities are to be discovered and their fanbases are to grow, issues like these need to be addressed. My library didn’t even have any ebook holdings I could borrow, but good ol’ physical copies are waiting for me at my branch.

Click on the image at the top to interact and happy reading!

Josh

Good Books for National Science Fiction Day

Goodreads Choice Awards 2019 Goodreads Choice Awards 2018 Book Picker Image Map

Today is National Science Fiction Day, so get your geek on and explore some of the most popular science fiction reads of the past few years. Click in the above image to visit one of the data visualizations to explore.

Then, as a 2020 New Year’s resolution, put one of the most important and brilliant sagas of the past half century on your reading list: Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Don’t shrug it off. This book will change the way you think about epic sagas. Happy Reading!

Goodreads Choice Awards 2019 Goodreads Choice Awards 2018 Book Picker Image Map

 

RPGs are Giants in the World of Video Games – We Analyze the Power Players

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If you like your video game stories, then read on! I just got back from a conference that inspired me to make a data graphic with some of the most celebrated video game RPGs in the modern era. – Josh

Tableau is incredibly robust and my experience at TC17 in Las Vegas showed me just how much so. My visualizations has always focused on designing for the interactive experience, and with the #data17 knowledge I acquired, I was able to merge many ideas into a more fully realized data-driven experience with my work.

There’s a data set that I picked up in the spring and worked on but then abandoned because I didn’t feel like the story I was building did justice to the subject I was passionate about: role-playing video games.

Role-playing games (RPGs) stand as giants in the world of video games. The level of immersion when playing these games is remarkable and your connection to the characters and story is much more palpable because in a sense the player controls his or her own destiny in the game.

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In my Tableau work, I wanted to convey some of the impact and meaning behind these creations and help people more fully appreciate and explore video games as vehicles for art.

I was inspired by the amazing viz work of Jonni Walker to attempt this approach. He arguably sets the bar for beautiful data stories in Tableau and stretches the limits of the software’s capabilities.

There were some tradeoffs I had to make so that the dashboard retained its interactivity and the images could still play a key role in pulling the audience through the story. This was a remarkable experience building on my background in photography and writing in order to create a data-driven story.

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Here are some quick tips I learned:

  • Photo selection: Fortunately I could use the data set itself to leverage striking images of the game art. I picked images that lent an editorial message to the elements or integrated into the design of the dashboard. (I had a good conversation with Michael Mixon and we commiserated on how long it takes to find the perfect image!) Also, this viz is a type of commentary and the artwork falls under fair use.
  • Photo editing: Learn Photoshop or a similar program that offers image masking. Tableau doesn’t offer transparent backgrounds for its charts, so I had to make design decisions that ensured optimal use of interactivity and images. This was a big pain point in Tableau and took probably 3x longer than building out the charts.
  • Calculated Fields (including LODs): This is an acknowledgement that your work will go much faster and you’ll be able to approach these type of data-driven stories if you learn how to present your data using calculated fields.
  • 3000 pixels tall!: Everything floated and it was beautiful. Just keep track of all your assets on the dashboard. I did this visually since the Item Hierarchy pane still isn’t that intuitive to me.
  • Pay it forward: I was tempted, right up until this writing, not to share the downloadable file. But I have learned so much from the Tableau Public community and would not be where I am without its members and their generosity (there are so many, I can’t name them all!). I think there’s a social contract of sorts, not necessarily in always making your work available, but in making a real effort to share knowledge and elevate the whole community.

I hope you enjoy. Happy vizzing!

 

 

Worlds Collide – Cage Match 2017 Finals

UPDATE: Ragnar was unstoppable at the end. All those that challenged him were laid bloody and broken at his feet. His prowess in the cage secured him the crown but it was at the cost of his fellow fictional brothers and sisters. May his crown of destruction weigh heavy on his brow…

The Story So Far.

Tom Bombadil buried his Rd1 opponent (IT) without looking back and enjoyed the top spot among all cage match fighters for almost 10 days straight. But he fell steeply in the contest, only narrowly defeating the old god Mr. Wednesday with 50.11% of the votes in Rd3, the closest of any fight. He trailed Devi in Rd4 until the very end when he pulled off an upset .

Ragnar has clawed his way through the competition, never ranking higher than #4 until his ascent in Rd3 to edge out Kell Maresh and then trounce Georgia Mason in Rd4 to head to the finals as the #1 seed.

Our Prediction: Tom B. to take it all. Middle Earth rises again!

Click image to interact!

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The Many Faces of the Major

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Click to explore different artists’ visions of the Major in all her incarnations.

Ghost in the Shell is one of the most profound pieces of fiction from any genre or culture. Period. The storytelling is intricate and powerful. The philosophical questions it poses make one consider the meaning of life and reconsider just how far technology should go. And the bad guys, well, they could be anyone or no one. There is no way to tell in this world what is real and what is not. Blink, and you might get your eyes cyber hacked.

The numerous layers of meaning in the Ghost in the Shell saga make it an unparalleled experience, whether in print or on the screen.

In five days, the live-action Ghost in the Shell movie comes to American cinemas. Certain quarters of the web have taken issue with the casting of the Major (Scarlett Johansson), but I am hopeful that the film will be faithful to the themes of the Japanese manga and anime and introduce new audiences to the acclaimed world the Major inhabits.

The West has its pop culture icons – Luke Skywalker, Batman, the Avengers, etc., etc. Major Kusanagi is one of East Asia’s.

Welcome to your newest sci-fi/cyberpunk/dystopian fix. This one has staying power.