Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Stolen Dreams
by Joseph Green
and R-M Lillian

Boon’s Mutiny
by Harold R. Thompson

Dancing in the Right of Way
by Cyn C. Bermudez

Esterhazy’s Cadence
by Guy T. Martland

Ghosts of Space Command
by Milo James Fowler

by Jeremy Szal

White Russians and Old Lace
by K.C. Ball

Shuttle 54, Where R U?
by Jack Ryan

Shorter Stories

Faraday Cage
by Timothy J. Gawne

Rose Coloured Tentacles
by Gareth D. Jones

Screaming His Scream
by Tim Major


Making Real Life X-Men
by E.E. Giorgi

Taking the Temperature
by Pierre Duhem



Comic Strips




Perihelion Reviews

From the Mouths of Psychopaths

“MOST PEOPLE DEVELOP SOME SENSE of right and wrong during early childhood—Freud called it the superego—but I never did,” says the hero of Frank J. Fleming’s novel “Superego.” Yes, Frank “Nuke the Moon” Fleming writes science fiction. The setting is pure 1950s fun, with interstellar civilizations, alien races mingling with humans, and faster-than-light space travel.

Rico Vargas of Riga isn’t a man so much as a science experiment. Thanks to surgery and gene modification in utero, he is born with super-fast reflexes and exceptional intelligence, logic but little emotion, and oops, no morals.

“I don’t think I was the intended result of the experimental program,” he says, “and it’s informative that I’ve never heard of them making another attempt.”

It takes so much effort for Rico to pass as a normal person, he’d rather kill than socialize with others. He believes if he ever acted like himself, people would say, “He sure was emotionally detached and seemed annoyed by the mere existence of other people. It makes perfect sense to hear his job was to kill people.” Naturally, he works as a hit man for a galactic crime syndicate.

After Jeff Lindsay’s “Dexter” I’ve come to resent the trope of the lovable psychopath. So why did I read another novel about one? In my daily perusal of ebooks I auto-ignore arrogant billionaires, feisty redheads, and mail-order brides, but “genetic” always gets my attention. So does quirky and light-hearted. “Can a genetically engineered psychopath grow a conscience, get the girl, and save the galaxy? Two out of three ain’t bad.” Hmm. Too many psychopaths get the girl, but how many grow a conscience? A psychopath surprised by love, I might buy. Transformed by love? Well, a little fantasy in my science fiction sounded good after all the gloom and doom I’d been reading, so I gave “Superego” a try.

The opening pages are full of overworked plotlines and familiar gags, yet the voice is engaging. I kept reading. It’s that universal human fascination with evil. But not fondness, I swear. Never mind Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray—“You will always be fond of me; I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit”—I can stop reading any time I choose. Anyway, it’s not the homicides that drew me to the story, nor the psychopath’s allegedly endearing emotional detachment. We all have an antisocial side, no matter how much or how little we indulge it.

So I’m still reading this novel about a bored sicko whose favorite thing to do is kill people, and I’ve yet to defend that use of my time.

The voice of Rico somehow keeps me turning pages. People live in the illusion they’re happy because they never bother to really think things out. He got that right. Rico keeps up his running monologue and moves on to politicians (you guessed it: they hold no interest for him).

Rico sometimes appears to be talking to himself when he’s actually using his hidden AI communicator. Rudely named “Dip” (by Rico, who else), the AI is cool and comically logical in the way Spock epitomized. It’s a device we may never tire of. AIs like Rusty in Tig Carson’s “A Space Alien” (October, 2014, review) and Chris the AI in Amelia Grace Treader’s “Cynthia the Invincible” (February, 2015 review) keep me reading even when the protagonists are—well, the emotional opposite of Spock, which is to say, irrational to the point of idiocy. But as children ignore their parents, adults ignore their much wiser AIs.

“Children are still animals who haven’t quite learned yet they’re supposed to be something else,” Rico says. More nodding.

The plot thickens. A special agent and a woman named Donner provide more comic relief. I found myself reading to the very end, even though I don’t like thrillers. Or psychopaths. I especially dislike reading about government conspiracies and assassinations.

What keeps me reading more than any other factor, though, is an author who can make me laugh. Rico has never even voted before. Sadly, that kind of apathy is far too universal, at least in the USA, and no pathology appears to be involved. Rico doesn’t care enough about anything to vote, but he has killed lots of politicians, “which is taking an even more active role in politics.”

Wait. Did I say that made me laugh? #NotLaughing, I swear! (Nor spending too much time on Twitter. Honest.)

This may not be a good time to quote another Rico-ism: “You hardly ever see real honesty in the universe. Nothing scares people more.”

Did someone ask about the plot? That’s something I tend to avoid discussing, due to accusations that I’m guilty of spoilers. I can only mention the part I care least about: Rico’s employer, the Nystrom syndicate, sends him to a planet where politicians from all over the galaxy are about to convene for the alleged goal of negotiating world peace. (Make that universal peace.) Rico’s killer instincts come into play all too soon when terrorists attack a restaurant, and Rico’s concealed weapons don’t remain concealed. To explain his quick-thinking heroics and illegal guns, he must pass himself off as a visiting cop from another planet.

He pulls it off, of course—but as a result, he’s assigned to work with (gasp!) a partner. Diane is so intimidating and so incredibly competent at killing, a terrible thing happens: Rico begins to feel for someone else. He actually cares whether another creature lives or dies. Diane has all the bad-ass, bold and rebellious hallmarks of a sociopath, so if any human should interest him, she’s the one.

So what’s the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths? Both include antisocial, disinhibited or bold behavior and lack of empathy or remorse (DSM-5, Diagnostic Statistics Manual). They make up maybe one percesuperegont of the population, and maybe one tenth of that one percent will become actual murderers, let alone serial killers. Sociopaths can love. They can choose to make sacrifices for their loved ones. Psychopaths have no loyalty and no love for anyone. Any pain that others suffer is meaningless to them. Psychopaths can abandon or kill their parents, spouses, and children for any reason.

Psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism, the “dark triad,” include a callous, manipulative interpersonal style that does not define our hero, Rico, nor Diane, his unexpected love interest. Rico does make the distinction that sociopathic killers take long journeys to become what he was born as, which fits the DSM-5 manual.

I did find (via that while psychopaths cannot love in the normal sense, they can, and do, fall in love. Indeed, some people argue that psychopaths have a deep wish to be loved and cared for (“Psychiatric Times,” Oct 7, 2014). Neurolaw, a new branch of science in the courtoom, gives the bad-asses an alibi: not “the devil made me do it,” but a congenital dark side of the orbital cortex deprives them of empathy.

Well, don’t put me on the jury. I’d still lock them up for life. Even though Diane is right: you can lock up the hitmen and call it justice, but all the people they killed would still be dead.

“Killing is ugly,” Rico tells us upfront. “A living body is designed to survive; killing opposes its entire purpose. Nothing dies in an artful manner ... often a living creature’s last moments are spent in a pointless struggle, twisting and writhing. The ugliness of death aside, I always enjoyed the challenge of being a hitman.”

Ugh. Good time to move on and read a different book right? Rico can’t stop telling us that people are boring, and that nothing disturbs him (except the dullness of people), because he’s such a psychopath. Well, that makes him boring. “To me, eating, sleeping, walking, and strangling a puppy in front of a crying child are all just different activities, and none of them holds any moral weight for me,” he says ad nauseum. But when Rico says things that ring true, they resound. The universe is full of so many violent, selfish people, a hitman could “kill day and night for years and barely make a dent in the evil.” Actually, Diane said that. “I knew all the darkness people had in them—how horrible they could be—and death just seemed like such a good thing for so many people.”

Who among us has never entertained such a thought?

Rico still has the lion’s share of memorable lines. “No matter how lazy or unmotivated a person is, if he feels his life is on the line, he will devote every available resource to not being killed.” I’m nodding. “Even when it looks like nothing is going on, nature is nothing but a tooth-and-nail fight for survival. Plants compete for sunlight and nutrients, some choking out others. Insects forage for food while small flying creatures hunt the insects. Basic survival is so easy for most sentients that we seem separated from these crucial battles.” More nodding. “Many think we have evolved past it, but I know it just moved to the edge of society—the place where I prefer to live.” (All right, you’ve made that point abundantly clear by now.)

“Pretty much everything about being civilized is unnecessarily cumbersome.” I’m nodding again. The government “look like they’re in charge and keep people feeling like they’re all soft and civilized, while lots of murdering is done for their benefit in faraway places they’ll never hear about.” Chilling, but true. A lot of people would run around and murder and steal without consequences if it weren’t for other bad people stopping them.

French poet and murderer Pierre François Lacenaire marked the birth of “a new kind of lionized outlaw,” the bourgeois romantic criminal, according to Michel Foucault (“Madness and Civilization,” 1964). Psychopaths, sociopaths, and murderers make good villains, but heroes? Maybe, if they pull a Darth Vader or a Raskolnikov (Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” was said to be inspired by Lacenaire).

Does Rico overcome his genetically engineered psychopathy? I honestly cannot tell you, not because of spoilers, but because the novel has an ambiguous ending. The final line is darkly comical and hard-hitting. It could be deeply disturbing, if I thought about it, so I’ll just not think about it.

I will say this: Rico gets caught in the rain, and as a metaphor, it is splendid. On many levels, the sheer power of water should not be underestimated.

In all, the novel is more than a guilty pleasure. The ethical issues, the wry observations about humanity, and the haunting tone elevate it from a satirical science fiction thriller to a philosophical discourse with a sense of humor. Add awesome futuristic weaponry and medical advances, and an AI named Dip who channels Spock, and this is a novel I can honestly recommend. (“Superego,” Frank J. Fleming, Liberty Island) 4 stars —Carol Kean


A Car Wreck is a Beautiful Thing

THERE’S A SCENE IN “MAD MAX: FURY ROAD” where Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a brutish warlord and the film’s chief villain, discusses with his fellow warlords how to bring down Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) and Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the rogues who’ve stolen Joe’s prize “breeders”—aka, young women used as sex slaves to repopulate society. One of Joe’s fellow warlords is a rather heavyset man in attire not at all appropriate for the desert post-apocalypse—a well-fitted button-up shirt and suit jacket.

And it was at this point, a good chunk of the way into “Fury Road,” that I noticed three key details about this well-dressed warlord.

First, there were two small holes cut in his suit, allowing his nipples to poke free into the open air.

Two, his nipples were pierced and linked together with a chain.

Three, he had been quietly tweaking his own nipples for the duration of the scene.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is completely bonkers, in the absolute best, most wonderful definition of the word “bonkers.” Despite not being based on any kind of comic (and in an era where every other blockbuster is), it’s very much a comic opus brought to life; every shot its own panel, and every panel sketched in with so much detail that it’ll take three or four viewings to fully absorb every minute detail of costuming, car construction and, yes, nipple tweaking. It’s a car chase film by way of “A Clockwork Orange,” veins bulging with anabolic steroids and crystal meth (and for those pining for a “Dredd” sequel, consider it a marvelous and extremely unofficial “Cursed Earth” adaptation).

There’s not much narrative to be found in “Fury Road” (and honestly, you’re better off going in knowing as little as possible), but here are the bare bones: one group, consisting of Max, Furiosa and the rescued “breeders,” are fleeing through the desert. An army of very scary-looking folks are chasing after them. That’s it. In recent interviews, the stars of “Fury Road” describe it not as a movie, but a scene, and they’re absolutely right—it’s a single car chase sequence, segmented into a three-act structure and blown up to feature-length.

It’s also one of the best car chases—and action films—in recent memory. Another “Mad Max” might look atrocious on paper, like one more musty old franchise hauled out of storage for the unnecessary sequel. It’s anything but. Especially considering the director, George Miller, is the same man behind the ormad maxiginal Mel Gibson “Mad Max” films, and that he’s labored over “Fury Road” for the last decade and a half. Miller has accomplished something remarkable here—he’s used our current blockbuster bloat to his advantage. “Fury Road” cost a whopping $150 million, which is more than triple the combined budgets of the first three “Mad Max” films. And from the looks of it, every cent has gone into creating some of the most artful, astounding vehicle-on-vehicle carnage ever captured on film. A car wreck is a beautiful thing in “Fury Road”—a leisurely ballet of roadsters shearing apart in mid-air as fireballs blossom in slow-motion. Or just a big rig, plowing into a motorcycle with such impact that the bike (and the rider) is shrapnel in half-a-second. It’s a testament to the skill of “Fury Road’s” motor carnage that the movie can bombard you with cars going kaboom for two hours straight without ever growing tiresome.

Although there are times I wish “Fury Road” would have slowed down for a few minutes (the all-encompassing car chase has almost no stopping points—just one brief moment when the characters regroup before the final lap). The film is so densely packed that details fly by you almost faster than you can comprehend them. On a few occasions, the film hits you with a plot point or piece of information that requires a moment of comprehension, but—hey, look over there! Kamikaze chainsaw-wielding infantrymen launching off giant car-mounted pogo sticks! And already, whatever point we needed to focus on is gone forever. Although it’s not like you’ll notice, because the chainsaw pogo-ers are plenty captivating. Thus that frantic, motor-stuffed pace is both the cause of, and solution to, “Fury Road’s” biggest problem.

The constant car battling has a curious effect on the performers as well. There’s almost zero dialogue, and what dialogue there is consists mostly of orders barked in the heat of battle. The performances are nearly all physical—their characters conveyed through wordless close-ups or the little subtleties in leaping out of a sunroof with a gun in each hand. Hardy and Theron are the only actors giving their roles a serious degree of depth, and both shine—especially Hardy, who already proved in “The Dark Knight Rises” that he could build a character entirely out of eye movements and physical presence. Which comes in handy, given that Hardy does nothing but grunt for nearly a third of the film. Strangely, the few bits of substantial dialogue are actually some of the film’s weaker moments—cheesy, clichéd stuff—to the point where “Fury Road” might have fared even better if it was totally dialogue-free.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is a film made for home video, the land of countless making-of featurettes and repeated viewings. But it’s worth a watch in theaters, too. The big screen’s a big plus. Also, Miller’s got two more “Fury Road” sequels planned if this one makes enough money, and it’s facing fierce competition this summer (mostly from “Pitch Perfect 2,” if you can believe it—opening on the same weekend). Consider that twelve-dollar movie ticket an investment into several more hours of the sweetest twisted metal there is. (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” directed by George Miller, Warner Bros.) 4 stars —Adam Paul


Nothing to Sneeze At

DOES ANYTHING BUT DYSTOPIA ever come on the heels of an apocalypse? In a market glutted with sad, sorry post-apocalyptic tales of poor little planet Earth and the wretched humans who caused her demise, Al Macy’s “Contact Us” is a blast of fresh air. Alien invasions, mass casualties? Earth will survive, and so will the human race.

If that isn’t audacious enough, Macy delivers competent leaders in the White House who keep Americans from panicking, rioting, or surrendering after the sudden extinction of three-fourths of the human race. I’m not sure when competence, fortitude, and resourcefulness become the pipe dream of speculative fiction, but I’m pretty sure of this: Al Macy should be the next President of the United States. Or have a place at the table in the “situation room,” anyway.

Imagine our Commander in Chief presiding over meetings with staff members who are as fun-loving and witty as ... well, as real humans in office jobs. My first gig after college was tech writer at a bomb factory (Chamberlain Manufacturing Corporation, now closed, but not because of me—honest). We took our work seriously, and we had fun when Beady, the security officer, wasn’t looking. Surly, cigar-chomping Stan the Man could have played Lt. Co. Bill Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now.” They (we) blew away the stereotype of government jobs as boring, useless posts peopled by dull, witless, working stiffs.

Not since Douglas Adams have I seen a premise as irresistibly silly as this:

On May 22, 2018, every person on Earth sneezes. Simultaneously. Hours later, an alien spacecraft appears over New York City and broadcasts a dire message of impending doom. The future of the human race will depend on the whims of a solitary extraterrestrial who appears in the form of Walter Cronkite.

That got my attention. “Make me laugh” is Job Number Two for whoever would have me: (1) read the first chapter, (2) keep reading to the end of the book, and (3) like it enough to give it at last three stars. Instead of publicly humiliating novice writers or even Hugo-winning best-selling authors who decontact usliver the occasional lemon, I pass over in silence the books that fail to grab me. It’s a dog-training (and child-rearing) trick that works in so many areas of life. Reinforce and encourage what is good. Ignore the rest. This is no lemon, this debut novel from a guy who’s published various books of nonfiction.

The worldwide sneeze is followed by an unknown flying object speeding toward Earth. “This thing is traveling way too fast for us,” one general reports. “Our F-15s can’t go faster than Mach three, and this thing is going Mach twenty. By the way, it’s not creating any sonic booms, and my science guys don’t even know how that’s possible.” Cool! Few creatures on Earth could survive those speeds and the decelerations, “But of course, if there is a biological being in there, it will be unlike any creature on Earth.”

Not one, but two alien ships enter our solar system. The second one, dubbed DJ1, lurks near Jupiter with no apparent purpose or interest in the little blue planet third from the sun.

The first UFO hovers over New York, sending broadcasts spoken by the apparent clone of Walter Cronkite. “Bad Guys are coming,” he warns. “The Bad Guys are a civilization of warlike beings that do bad things to unprotected planets like yours. For right now, let me just say, you don’t want to know. My Mission Impossible is to travel around helping underdogs like you.”

Like the aliens of Mike Resnick’s hilarious and brilliant story “Observation Post” (in “Beyond the Sun,” reviewed in the October, 2013, issue of “Perihelion”), Cronkite forms most of his knowledge of humans from their radio and TV broadcasts.

In the situation room, White House staffers try to figure out who this “Cronkite” character really is. Maybe he’s just some old curmudgeon, but from another planet, essentially an “old man who has his definite opinions about the world and is terribly annoyed that there are those who do not share his views,” as the first psychologist suggests. Sounds “more like a teenager to me,” the second one argues. “One who ridicules anyone who doesn’t agree with his, or her, point of view.” Either way, picturing him with his thumb on a nuclear button is chilling and, the way Macy writes it, comical.

Next, the die-off begins. Either the lurking ship or Cronkite is guilty of exterminating three-fourths of the human race. It is one of the cleverest, cleanest, most efficient exterminations ever. If you’ve noticed the recent epidemic of monstrous, mutant-Ebola victims in our science fiction, you know how very messy mass casualties can be.

Of all the vivid, likable characters, Martin and Alex, the “Smart-Aleck twins,” may be my favorites. I love Seth McGraw: “like many of the best scientists,” he’d never grown up, never stopped asking, as children do, “Why?” Wait, wait, I love Captain Ahab, aka Cobb, an old man with a snow-white sailor’s beard and skin like old leather and “thin enough to appear in a castaway cartoon.” The kind of guy who’d restore a 1931 biplane and fly it, day and night, over the D.C. area.

And then there’s Charli’s grandma. I love this sort of sensible, practical, wise old lady character, as long as she isn’t profane and vulgar. This one rocks the trope. Grandma Marie pulling up a lawn chair for the incoming UFO (rather than running for cover) is a classic.

Marie is calm in the face of a diagnosis of cancer, calm after finding her husband’s desiccated corpse. “I do miss him, and I’ll miss him more when I have some time later,” she says, “so let’s go back to work.” Such fortitude is what tamed the wilderness and allowed nations to rise from the ashes of battles and natural disasters. The old slogan “Keep calm and carry on,” Marie reminds us, is “even more appropriate here than it was in 1939.” She figures out how to occupy the incompetent mayor. We need more grandmas in government.

Charli, the brilliant, youngest-ever top advisor to a U.S. President, has learned a lot from Grandma. She knows people need to have a job to keep society going. She suggests an ad campaign to show examples of how things are working. It succeeds. “Spin” can be a good thing.

The real wildcard in this crisis is human nature. If enough people are convinced there’s a disaster, it will be disastrous. “If we keep our heads we can get through it, but we’re dealing with mass psychology and herd behavior here,” President Hallstrom warns. How often in fiction do we see a man, especially one who is young, fun-loving and in charge of the nation, acting as level-headed as a grandma? Please tell me this guy exists somewhere outside Macy’s imagination.

Guccio is consistently droll. Seth McGraw is delightfully science-minded. He loves the new technology an alien invasion might bring: “for centuries we’ve been asking whether we’re alone in the universe. Now we know the answer: we are not alone. That’s a pretty significant thing to learn. We should celebrate that.”

Did I mention that this novel is a blast of fresh air in a market full of story lines gone stale with overuse? Jake upholds his reputation for being smart even when it comes to the tricky province of romance. After meeting Charli, he reflects that “at the start she’d been light and flirtatious with an infectious laugh. At the end she was judgmental and shrewish, like the old woman you wouldn’t want your wife to turn into.” Instead of assuming he’d said something offensive or stupid (which he’s notorious for, sometimes with catastrophic results), Jake does what men never do in the romance genre: he gives her the benefit of the doubt. Most likely, Charli “was conflicted as to whether she wanted him or not. She’d attracted him and then pushed him away.”

Jake is the titular character for several good reasons. When he’s in hiding, his alias is William Evans, and he wears a dark suit and narrow tie, “usually rumpled, as if he’d been to an all-night jam.” He plays piano in a club called “The Take Five.” The author is a jazz musician, which may explain some of the cleverness and fun in this novel. It reminds me of a study someone posted at Twitter: women unconsciously favor men who are good at tricky compositions because that sort of intelligence bodes well for the gene pool.

This pool also includes a cult of zealots. “Some felt that a world run by a benevolent and all-powerful dictator would be preferable to the constant wars and political squabbles that had existed for millions of years,” the reader is not surprised to hear, and the zealots create a sort of church around Cronkite. The words of the cult leader sound all too authentic: “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed in the view of the foolish to be dead, and their passing away was thought an affliction, and their going forth from us, utter destruction.” I want to scoff and say Macy knows nothing about religion, but I’ve met too many people who sound as irrational and, well, Biblical, as Macy’s Cronkites.

Cronkite, of course, does nothing to discourage the delusions of his followers.

To prove his good intentions, helping humans prepare for the incoming alien invaders, Cronkite delivers blueprints to create intriguing devices that can be produced using Earth’s Series Five 3D printer, El Exigente. He does not include user manuals. Humans can build the alien devices, but figuring out what to do with them takes intuition, trial and error. El Exigente, “The Demanding One,” destroys any effort that falls short of its unfathomable standards. Even a slight change in color would trigger a destruction order. The devices, and the ways our heroes exploit them, make for fun reading.

The villain (this is not a spoiler!) resembles a very large version of a certain creature that invades our homes regularly. Thanks, Al Macy. Call me El Exigente , but I will destroy these things more ruthlessly than ever, no matter how cute the little invaders may be. (Their cuteness vanishes when they occupy my home.)

Epic villains. Memorable characters. Humans who triumph over adversity. Are there any flaws in this novel? Some, yes, but I didn’t mind. Point of view is divided up among a lot of characters in scenes too short to be well-developed, leaving long gaps from one cliff-hanger end-of-scene to the next. Grandma Marie may be a little too quick on the draw, and a little too cavalier about the consequences. The story takes some dark and twisted turns. Brutal deaths and scary events are narrated with a casual attitude. On the one hand, I like the light-hearted tone. On the other hand, the dark aspects of the story may deserve more than, say, a token ten seconds of silence (“who has time for a whole minute?”) in honor of the dead.

Macy indulges his own comic tastes, which is what J.K. Rowling is said to do (write what you like, write what you find funny, not what you think amuse others). It works for me, with one exception. There is a certain kind of comedy that I find as unfunny as groin injuries: a guy suddenly finds himself naked (oops) in public and ends up in the lap of a large, manly woman. Add boob jokes, and I might set the book aside for good, or knock a star off the rating. However, most of the world seems to laugh at stuff that makes me wince or roll my eyes, while I crack up at stuff nobody else finds amusing, so I’ll try to forget Captain Neptuna and five-star the rest of the story.

In all, “Contact Us” is an emotional tour de force. It celebrates the human side that science fiction so often condemns. I hated the lame, lame ending of Stephen King’s “The Stand”: “Will people ever learn?” Answer: “I don’t know, I just don’t know.” This novel ends with a battle, as one might expect, and a victory for the good guys, and the door is open for more adventures with Jake, the world’s number-one problem solver, and all his competent and comical cohorts.

Now, to get someone to option the movie rights ... (“Contact Us,” Al Macy, CreatSpace Independent Publishing) 5stars —Carol Kean


Dangers in a Strange Game

HUMANS ARE NATURAL STORYTELLERS. A big bulk of the media we create and consume is based around storytelling. Our most recent stage of storytelling has been in the form of video games. Video games have been delivering vivid, rich tales that create legions of fans. We’ve come to expect it, even in indie, cheap download games. And if the studios don’t deliver they may not have future chances to try.

In “Infinity Runner” from Wales Interactive, mankind has spread throughout the galaxy. The titular vessel Infinity Runner is the largest spacecraft ever constructed and is sent into the void to find even more homes for the human race. However, something has gone wrong along the way. Now you, the first person viewpoint character and protagonist, are awakened from stasis and sent running through the ship. Not only running, but running naked from one end of the ship to the other. It’s a big ship. You are running so fast that if you run into walls you die. Sounds strange so far, but it is about to get stranger.

As you run through the passageways, you are aided by a mysterious woman who claims to have set you free. From time to time, she pops in your head to give you advice, typically in the form of a warning seconds before something kills you. Also, as you make it through each level, she fills in a bit more of the backstory. She also urges you to runinfinity runner, which seems unnecessary because, well frankly, you couldn’t stop if you wanted to. You are faced with several obstacles that you must either jump over, slide under, or strafe right or left. These obstacles range from lasers running through the passageways, to scenery blowing up and landing in the way, to actual holes in the ship, to outer space that some how doesn’t suck you through. Every so often there are guards in the way that you have to fight. Only fight isn’t the right word as the game often switches to quick-time-events where you press buttons in a certain sequence to fend off the guards.

There are also random jet injector floating in the air. If you run into one of these things, you get all hairy and super-strong. Furthermore, the lady who is helping explains that there are people throughout the galaxy with a genetic predisposition for “werewolf-ism.” The corporation has put several of these mutants on the ship in order to study them. Through hormone manipulation, the change that usually lies dormant within them can be brought about. These creatures are running loose on the ship!

The game play is repetitive and tedious. You are given three “lives” on the normal difficulty setting, but the slightest bump into most things can kill you. There are ample checkpoints to restart from when you die but some scenarios are so difficult it doesn’t matter. You use up your lives, then start the level over; you are only able to complete a level through trial, error, and memorization. Without dying, each level lasts about five minutes. One should be able to play through the entire game in a couple of hours. With the frequency that things kill you, it makes the game much longer. The consistency of the danger varies wildly, as well. You can be set on fire, cut into pieces by lasers, sucked into the vacuum of space, or trip over a shelf and break your neck.

The werewolf aspect of the game seems pointless and silly. There are tons of options that could have been inserted here: aliens, rouge androids, the ship’s own defenses, and so on. The game makers tried to backtrack and make this a genetic component, brought about through hormone manipulation, but it just seems like they’re cutting and pasting either a science fiction setting onto a horror game or a horror element onto a science fiction game. The story line is weak enough to lose a lot of potential fans. There are plenty of science fictioni writers around, good ones, whom they could have brought in to write a better story line.

“Infinity Runner” is an endless running game. Not a sub-genre I’m a fan of, but I know there are plenty of people out there who enjoy this sort of game (e.g. “Temple Run”). Eliminating the ability to control an aspect of the game also eliminates an important part of the storytelling process. This game may have been designed for the new Oculus Rift game peripheral. Oculus Rift is a head-mounted virtual reality display that will be available for consumer purchase some time next year. However, there are limitations, such as movement. Games like “Infinity Runner” will play much better using the Oculus Rift and will fit in with early attempts at new gaming platforms.

As far as current platforms go, this game fails to perform. If it were a mobile game it might fare a better, but still not great. As one of the first games for the new VR type interfaces, it’s not that bad at all. It’s a welcome serving of nostalgia for older gamers, but too repetitive and tedious for others. (“Infinity Runner,” Wales Interactive, STEAM, PlayStation 4, Xbox One) 2starsAdam Armstrong