Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


From Gaia to Proxima Centauri
by Milo James Fowler

Suck the Oil Out With a Straw
by Robin White

L’enfer, C’est la Solitude
by Joe Vasicek

Tea With Silicate Gods
by Auston Habershaw

by Andrew Muff

Gina Starlight’s Got the Blues
by Sandra M. Odell

Passing History
by Bill Adler Jr.

A Planet Like Earth
by E.K. Wagner

Shorter Stories

Cold Deaths
by Michael Haynes

Leviathan Buffet
by Sarina Dorie

by Hall Jameson


How Far is Heaven?
by Gary Cuba

A.I. Invasion or A.I. in Education?
by Jason M. Harley



Comic Strips




Perihelion Reviews

An Impossible Peace

THE MYSTERIOUS KEN LIZZI shines again with a timeless tale of man versus man, man versus machine, and man versus alien. “Under Strange Suns,” like his debut novel “Reunion” (reviewed 12-OCT-2014), is packed with strong, sensible heroes, spectacular battles, and above all, a sensawunda, the kind you might expect from a guy who works for a comic book company. Lizzi’s heroes would rather reason than fight, but humans are seldom reasonable. His characters and action scenes are so authentic, it’s obvious the author has done “a stint in the military”—and that’s all he has to say about that.

No comic book or war photos have haunted me the way a certain scene in Lizzi’s latest novel has. I had yet to recover from the glass house in Guy T. Martland’s “The Scion,” and now this. Thanks, you authors with the lurid imaginations. It’s Super Tuesday as I write this, and we’re all weary of politics and war, but something we only joke about happens for real in “Under Strange Suns.” Let’s just say “DC” takes on new meaning, like 9-11. Our hero, Special Forces soldier Aidan Carson, decides to travel light years from Earth to get away from it all. Along the way, something drifts into view, and I cannot unsee it.

“DC: that’s how everyone now referred to that horrible day over two years ago, the incident and the place forever conflated,” Lizzi narrates. “At least the poor bastards trying to orchestrate America’s response to the abrupt destruction of the United States’ capitol had orbiting military staging posts that could drop Aidan and his heavily armed and angry friends to any point on the planet within thirty minutes.”

Note: you’ll have to read the book to see that thing I cannot unsee.

We meet Aidan and his team gearing up in their awesome futuristic smart camo jackets for another hopeless battle. The kind where “the same people smiling and trying to sell you hammered copper bracelets in the daytime would dig up their AKs at night and plant IEDs along your patrol routes. Hard to feel compassion when you’re pretty sure most people outside the wire want to kill you. It was more wondering what the point was. What were we accomplishing?”

The enemy uses kind, gentle scholars to launch terrorist attacks. They embed their troops among women and children, exploiting the American disinclination to kill women and children. Their leader is Farouq ibn Farouq, “the terrorist so nice they named him twice.” It all sounds painfully familiar, but funny too, in the way that soldiers deploy dark humor to survive their line of work.

We love Aidan’s teammates; therefore not all of them will make it out alive—it’s one of those tropes of the genre. We love the soldiers who make it home and donate their combat pay to the widows. These guys are so decent, so self-sacrificing, we just want to keep them home forever, but they’re called to make the world safe, not to play it safe.

The enemy keeps sending more soldiers to the slaughter. Aidan is sick of “killing the seemingly inexhaustible supply of people filled with seemingly bottomless wells of hate.” If he could just see that he was making a difference, he might re-enlist. “What’s left of the world I was born into?” Aidan wonders. “Only thing holding the U.S. together is anger, and that won’t last forever.”

Frustrated, he makes up his mind to leave the world behind. “The prospect of setting off into the unknown, away from the despair and chaos, pleased him. The possibility of dying out there didn’t greatly trouble him.” Where’s he headed? “Twenty-plus light-years from Earth. Who knows how many light-years from the nearest habitable planet?”

The starship is powered by the same newfangled Faster-Than-Light drive blamed for getting its inventor killed or lost in space, but Aidan reasons it’s worth the risk: “And if it did blow up, would that be such a bad way to go? Sudden, painless. On the way to the start of something new, something not yet tainted by a growing sense of pointlessness.”

Heh heh heh. When at last he sets foot on alien soil, the same old shit hits the fan. His first move is to hide; his second is to kill; soon he’s using his military background to draw up battle plans, this time in defense of an alien race.

“There’s nothing new under the sun. Or under strange suns,” Aidan discovers. “We flee to the stars only to find our iniquities waiting for us.”

Good thing he brought along that awesome camo jacket. It’s even smarter than the jacket in last month’s book review (Gerald Brandt’s “The Courier”). There’s smart as in fashionable, and smart as in wired for fantastic, futuristic techno-apps. Aidan’s smart-jacket senses the ambient temperature and numerous apertures slide open to assist airflow. Nano-tubes within the smart fabric circulate coolant (or heat) as needed. For a fact, more nerds need to be employed as fashion designers.

I haven’t even begun to tell you about the geek-fest of the space ship and the missing inventor of the Y-drive. Most of it is in the unfortunate prologue. For me, the opening pages were a little drawn-out, much as I love the inventor who’s about to revolutionize the world. Lizzi’s characteristic sense of humor kicks in when Yuschenkov urgently summons his assistant, Azziz:

"If you don’t mind my asking, Doctor Yuschenkov,” Azziz says, “what is very complex, surprisingly inexpensive, and going to make a difference?"

"What? Oh, of course. FTL, Azziz. FTL. Faster. Than. Light. A propulsion system. A spaceship drive. FT-fucking-L."

"Sir? Is this another prank? It took me a week to get my car disassembled and out of my apartment last time."

We can’t help but love Dr. Brennan Yuschenkov and his child-like delight in his work. We love Brooklyn, who witnesses her uncle soar off into the sky, launching the world’s first interstellar voyage with the Y-drive. We even love that polite, humorless yes-man Azziz, who stays home safe with family instead of venturing into outer space with his mentor.

Most of us don’t need to understand “the controlled entanglement of gravitons, the directed acceleration of one half of the pair, the attraction/feedback reaction shifting phase to the tachyonic at just faster than light, the pulsing incremental increases beyond. Theoretical upper limits. Imaginary mass. Relativistic effects. The impressive size of the quantum-field bubble the drive was likely to generate.” What I do understand is the sense of wonder:

When Brooklyn saw Uncle Brennan trot down the ladder from the Eureka, she broke into a run ... And there he was, dropping to his knees in front of her, arms open to embrace her. Her uncle appeared heroic, framed against the rocket, staring up at the heavens ... He brought his regard Earthward, down to her, and she thought she saw the entire universe shining for a moment in his eyes.


Years later, Brooklyn is interviewing Aidan Carson for a job on the new ship Yuschenkov. “Brennan Yuschenkov was my uncle,” she explains. “Because of him I spent my entire life preparing for work in space.” Commercial pilot license, early cruise-to-the-moon agencies, lunar shuttle pilot. Brooklyn has never given up the idea that her uncle is alive somewhere in the universe, minus radio communications.

With hardly any money and no guarantees of safety, she assembles a ragtag crew. “Given the roughly one-in-fifty odds of Y-Drive failure, Brooklyn would have to find people crUnder Strange Sunsazy enough, desperate enough, damaged enough to take the risk of becoming adrift in deep space, on an endless one-way trip. Crazy, desperate, damaged.” Gotta love that woman. “Okay. But above all, the crew would need to be people she could trust.”

Her interview with Aidan is a scene that begs to be made into a movie. She calls him out on “retributive action,” a euphemism for payback. What fueled his interest in space travel? Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott. Stuff that gave him “a taste for adventure. Maybe. Shit, I really don’t have a clear answer for you.” He pulls no punches.

She’s as rational as he is, and he’s as awesome as she is, but they subdue their emotions and keep a professional distance. In a good way, it reminds me of Han Solo and Princess Leia. The dialogue is snappy, fun, and fraught with tension. Brooklyn sizes him up—“contriteness without a hint of servility, a good-natured acceptance of discipline but no willingness to take any bullshit”—and hires him on the spot.

Her crew members are as gutsy and independent as she, which can be problematic. They tend to think for themselves rather than take orders. Without giving away the page-turning plot developments, let’s just say Aidan ends up alone on the moon of some far-out planet, minus radio communication with the ship.

For all the trauma he’s endured, all the pain he’s internalized, Aidan remains competent, calm, and capable of that sensawunda. Waking up alone and as lost as Brooklyn’s missing uncle, he watches two planets rise, the gas giant “reflecting the light of its primary upon its moon and upon one very lost ex-soldier.”

“Now ain’t that something,” Aidan says.

Brooklyn’s ship lacks the technology for her to land, fetch Aidan, and take off again. It’s one of those things that readers either understand, or pretend to, in order to enjoy the story. I had to cut the same sort of slack for Lizzi’s one-armed humanoids, the three-legged fauna, and the unappetizing flora. Not to mention the religious zealots that cause the same old trouble Aidan was trying to escape on Earth.

“And now here he was, light years away from the old battlefields, taking a page from the insurgent playbook.” This time around, he doesn’t have his teammates. That brotherhood “had been the sole reason he had even considered re-upping for another hitch.” Now, after years of fighting an enemy that employed roadside bombs and guerilla warfare, Aidan ends up using their tactics.

And once again, for all the troops cut down, more keep coming. “When would he have killed enough of them? Each swordsman he shot or stabbed was just another retributive action, another orbital drop into a terrorist stronghold. If he killed a hundred of them but they still kept murdering, placing car bombs, burning and pillaging, what had been the point?”

This is not, however, a depressing reminder of the futility of war. Seeing Aidan assemble his army and plan his next move is exciting and, well, kind of fun. “It would all come down to moments, to timing. He didn’t like this reliance upon precision, but this gambit was his only remaining play. If the dice did not tumble his way the game was over ... Hell, he had created more elaborate plans in games of Dungeons and Dragons.”

Does he encounter the missing uncle? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

This is a story that never goes out of style. I love the understated emotions, the grit and determination of soldiers and space explorers, and the visionary entrepreneurs who equip them with the requisite technology.

“In the aftermath of DC, commerce limped along,” Aidan observes. “The economy continued to shrink in the chaos of war and political uncertainty and large scale off-planet emigration. Still, investors and entrepreneurs remained.” Long term thinkers live in underground habitats or in orbit, despite knowing they won’t live to see the culmination of their efforts.

Aidan’s first glimpse of Brooklyn’s ship reinforces that theme: “Amazing, this place. The country is falling to ruins, but this spaceport keeps functioning smoothly. As if everyone realizes deep down that our only real hope is out there and spaceports like these are our only exit.”

Great science fiction delivers more than comic-book visuals and pulp-fiction special effects. Forward-looking as the spaceport is, with its efficiency and technological competency, Aidan is struck by what was lost. “America’s recent past felt unreal, a historical recreation of a bygone age, a nostalgic grasping after what could never be reattained.” When people look back, wondering how they might have averted tragedy, Aidan rationalizes the guilt: “The chain of cause and effect can only go back so far before you can no longer own the results. Other factors start to influence the outcome.” It sounds simple, yet it’s amazingly hard to internalize.

Living in peace also sounds simple but seems to be impossible. Aidan “simply couldn’t fathom it. It was all so fucking frustrating and pointless ... he’d had enough of inconclusive battles. Perhaps he would have stayed in the service if just once he’d fought and killed an enemy whose death created an obvious, tangibly positive change of events, not merely nudging a notional needle incrementally in what he was told was the right direction. Instead he’d traveled light years across the galaxy only to encounter the same old shit.”

“It’s the way of the universe,” someone tells him. The enemy “are just another expression of entropy. Where there is life, there is conflict.”

Aidan doesn’t buy it. “The universe is a big place. There’s gotta be some hope of peace, somewhere out there.”

I like that. I like the battle-weary soldier (you’ve got to read the part where Aidan, injured, barely able to haul his own ass back to safety, has to haul a dead body and an injured comrade as well, step by step, mile after miserable mile). I like the spirit of Ken Lizzi’s fiction and the integrity of his characters. In spite of occasional missteps in the novel, this is my kind of escapism. (“Under Strange Suns,” Ken Lizzi, Twilight Times Books)5stars —Carol Kean


Variations on a Theme

WHEN 21ST CENTURY AUTHORS speculate on Space, the Final Frontier, the awesome “Star Trek” theme song can be heard segueing into a heart-pounding “Jaws” riff. Space elevator disasters, unwelcoming aliens, medical clones, low gravity surgical suites, and the end of civilization brought ten authors together in “Visions I: Leaving Earth,” the first anthology in a series edited by Carrol Fix. In “Visions II: Moons of Saturn,” twelve authors showed us space colonies, ice mines, mutant monsters, time travelers and more. With “Visions III: Inside the Kuiper Belt,” seventeen international authors take us farther out to the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. At the rate this has been going, I’m afraid to see what Visions IV will bring.

For better or worse, “Visions III” shows human nature as a constant across centuries, light years, and technological leaps. The themes are varied: long-distance romance; the tragi-comically inept boss nobody likes; the rich show-off taking his buddies on a trophy-collecting expedition; the treasure hunter picking up something from a strange place only to find the souvenir is lethal. The risks are great, but so are the rewards.

“Astronauts are brave people,” Ellen Denton reminds us in the haunting story “Snow White.” We “look to the skies and the stars as crucibles out of which answers would eventually come. And looked to those things as portals from which the future would be born, because when man looks into any vast unknown, he thinks not of the past or present, but of the future. He thinks about where that mysterious door might lead him, once he steps through.”

Two men star in this cold, dreamy tale of a research station on the surface of OR-10, affectionately named “Snow White” by astronomers. The dreamy part turns to a nightmare, but all is not lost. “I felt proud to be human,” Ryan concludes, “proud to be part of something that was greater than human ... Who knew what truths and changes now stretched out before us as we stepped through one door after another in the frontiers of space?”

Landing in a new world, I’d be the first idiot to start collecting rocks, which could very well turn into the last thing I did. Then again, the crew of a research vessel is sent to KBO 2039, a “planetesimal of rock and ice beyond the orbit of Pluto,” apparently to see what minerals and metals are there to be mined. Dusting the regolith off a rock, seeing a shiny black stone beneath, who wouldn’t bring it on board? Who knew a mere rock could turn a routine mission into a psychological thriller? The “Kuiper Belt Threat” by Eric T. Reynolds delivers escalating tension, mystery, and an epic heroine. Readers won’t soon forget a pilot named Adrienne.

Having randomly chosen two of the most chilling tales to read first, I was ready for something on the lighter side. Ooh, Jeremy Lichtman’s Wilbur and Fox are back! That should be the pick-me-up I need, right? In “Tombaugh's Frozen Heart,” Wilbur’s meddling mother tries to play matchmaker. Fox tries to keep the eligible bachelor out of trouble even as Wilbur rockets to Pluto to escape Mom’s machinations. During their approach, the famed heart-shaped landmark of Tombaugh Regio comes into view, inspiring some witty repartee between Wilbur and Fox. A grumpy Ph.D. candidate who gets roped into playing tour guide dismisses the shape as a “parametric plot of a mathematical curve,” and Wilbur, as usual, rarely manages to finish a sentence. He does manage to leave an impact of his own on Pluto. The story is comical and witty, as I’d anticipated, but not lighthearted. I love/hate it when an author surprises me like that.

The biggest delight in this anthology was Timothy Paul’s “Gypsy in the Belt,” given a pet peeve of mine that authors can exploit the “gypsy” stereotype with no fear of being labeled politically incorrect. As if the name Spooky Lupei isn’t bad enough, the woman is “a full-blooded Romanian gypsy with master’s degrees in geometry, astronomy and astrophysics,” and she relies “more on psychic intuition than instrument panels for navigation.” I was all ready to hate this story. Tough-talking blonde Captain Carlotta Jones has low expectations of the crew assigned to her on a deep space mission: Sandy, who is “either a very butch girl or an effeminate guy,” buck-toothed Rocky, simple-guy Bullwinkle, Spooky Lupei, and Mitt Hester, the captain’s second in command.

The “gypsy” navigator may rely more on her intuition than on technology, but the whole crew is packing good luck charms and rosaries in an era when excursions into deep space seem to have revived irrational human fears and uncertainty. It’s no surprise that Spooky Lupei’s hunches serve the mission in ways that technology cannot, but it’s personal experience more than intuition that helps her steer clear of trouble in the Kuiper Belt. Action, suspense, clever dialogue, and well-developed characters take this story to a level I wasn’t expecting. I look forward to more from Timothy Paul.

Ami Hart brings humor, lots of surprises, and another happy ending to this mixed brew. Lancelle, the incompetent boss nobody likes, “rewards” Ned with a one-week vacation at the boss’ retreat. “The Hope Incident” would be great as a sit-com. It’s also a great read, in spite of a surprising number of typos.

Another rich guy entertains his buddies in “White Whale of Europa” by Mark Mellon.

Snarky dialogue between a medic, Sibyl X, and her two-headed snake, Sylla, reveal the antics of the Lord Autocrator, D’Souza, who seems to be a leonine mix of The Donald and a mad scientist. Thanks to Jupiter’s radiation, Europa’s sea holds nothing but bacteria—until D’Souza’s lab gets hold of a “phyloplankton swarm, evolved from indigenous bacteria, each microscopic blob striated with multiple strands of DNA, constantly replicating itself and drawing nourishment from the very radiation that simultaneously tears it into pieces.” D’Souza’s engineered “whales” provide the sport and trophies these fat, rich spacers have been missing. These Autocrators miss a lot of things, though, and underlings who are smarter than their masters carry the story to a startling conclusion.

In “Star's Edge” by Tom Olbert, we see again the bright, heart-shaped surface formation of “Tombaugh's Frozen Heart,” but here “the ancient impact crater” is a portal to the Plutonian underworld. An underwater city fills half the volcanically warmed, subterranean ocean of Pluto, a marvel of science and artistry, “More wondrous than the glass-domed garden cities of Mars, or the floating sky cities of Venus. Quite literally, a city of art, created by science beyond anything currently possessed in the inner Solar System.”

Underworld, of course, has dual meanings. Richard is an undercover agent posing as a businessman. The impossibly beautiful Lady Star Gem and the unbearably pretentious Lord Rising Wave welcome Richard to the Imperium of the Enlightened, where peace reigns and artificial intelligence has been banned. “Machines became conscious, posing a threat to human survival. Some say there is no human life left in the Oort colonies today; only intelligent automatons.” Savvy readers know this can only mean that AIs lurk among the city of marvels, where peace has been won at the cost of basic rights and freedom of thought.

Via the cybernetic implant in his brain, Richard receives a reminder from his Director: do not fall under their spell. The magic of the city dulls a little when he realizes the place was built with slave labor, many consumed in the heat of the tunnels, killed in the mines or simply worked to death. The slaves Richard meets deny what they are, on pain of death.

Richard’s mission becomes even more challenging when a third contender appears in this covert war to see who will dominate the solar system. Beyond the misty-white region of the Oort Cloud lies “The Edge of Darkness,” where pure evil lies. Some dare to call the region by its forbidden name, Star’s Edge.

There’s a lot more to the story, but reading it is better than hearing about it from me. “Star’s Edge” is a geek fest of technology unknown to 21st century humans. I haven’t even mentioned the moon-sized constructs orbiting Sedna with subspace radio arrays, nor sentient minds the size of planets. This is the fun, futuristic kind of stuff I love about this genre. It’s the best and worst of humanity, with tyrants and slaves versus freedom, artistic and scientific creativity, and the human drive to explore.

John Moralee’s “Signal” is a First Contact situation. Xena Prime colonists are the only humans in their section of the Kuiper Belt, until a strange signal is detected from some form of alien life. David organizes a research team to determine the signal’s origin, while Alice the worrywart wants to keep him home safe. When that fails, she insists on coming with him as backup, which amuses her scientist-husband, but she’s good at one-upping him, especially the way she can speed-watch movies inside her head. (I love their repartee about horror flicks.) For all the creepy-scary parts, the story ends well. No, this is not a spoiler. If the wife’s worst fears had been realized, the story would be predictable as well as tragic, which would have me withholding stars from the overall rating of this book.

“Corner Of His Eye” by Duane Brewster may not be tragic, but it’s definitely haunting, horrifying, and surprising. I do not like these surprises. I do, however, have a new appreciation for the time I was stranded in a barren stretch of Colorado at the mercy of mechanics replacing a transmission. That three-day hitch in our family vacation now seems like a trip to paradise compared to mechanical problems in a starship thousands of light years from anything.

As if Brewster’s story wasn’t scary enough, there’s “Waters Above The Heavens” by Kara Race-Moore. The mother. The children. The tension at the dinner table! The Biblical overtones, the religious zeal. How far one will go to root out heathens who fail to embrace True Faith. This is dark stuff, not for the faint of heart.

“Karl's Ride” by W. A. Fix is a lighter tale, though it starts out with oppression, injustice, workers exploited by corporations, and self-serving backstabbers. Gradually the payoffs shift from the rich jerks who don’t deserve the spoils to a band of free-spirits who use teamwork to orchestrate an incredibly ambitious heist.

“Aphelion” by Bruce Davis is a quieter tale with only two characters. Mike has congenital SCID, Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Syndrome, which has him confined to a protective bubble for his first eighteen years. Jenny loses her face and legs in an explosion, but the “witch doctors” from a mysterious “Company”visions iii offer her life in a biotank as an alternative to being dead. What good are Jenny and Mike to society? Pair them on a mission to outer space, with VR, and what more could they ask for? The answer is sweet. Or bittersweet.

In “Circus Maximus” by Mike Rimar, a troublemaker named Jump has lured his buddies, or partners in crime, on a few too many dangerous missions. They don’t trust him. One of them, however, has a huge crush on him. Jump’s latest gig promises such immense rewards, his crew decide to risk one more job. The puns, the dialogue, the big reveals are fun, but the way these characters interact with each other takes the story to a whole new level. Well done.

I love the woman pilot in “Races” by Gustavo Bondoni: “Her craft was built to match her personality. It had the biggest engine anyone had been able to build without blowing themselves up.” The racecourse is set inside an asteroid belt, sure to supply viewers with plenty of smash-ups, but for racers, “life wasn’t worth living unless it hung by the slimmest of threads.” Pat, however, disappears from the story for a long time when Kavi, a male race-spaceship driver, crashes into an asteroid. Or whatever it is. Eventually Pat resurfaces, and Kavi wins something more important than an air race. Still, I’d like to see more of Pat the woman pilot with the biggest engine on the course.

“Wake-Up Call” by S.M. Kraftchak is a humorous tale of a spaceship pilot whose cargo consists of one prisoner. The ship’s AI, Norma, makes the mistake of talking to the con artist, Larak, who convinces her she needs a paint job and other upgrades. Kelvin soon wearies of the AI’s status updates and escalating demands. Who will prevail? The battle of wills and wits makes this a tense but entertaining romp in space.

“Devil's Spit” by Mary Madigan is a time travel story narrated in second person. “You didn’t consider the darkness” is the opening line. “You could be laid flat on the back ice of Devil’s Spit, an asteroid in the dark side of the Kuiper Belt.” Or not. “Only one thing is certain. You’re lying there, trying to answer the question that’s vexed you your whole life. Can a living organism be in two places at the same time?” The answer takes time, as well as some give and take between father and son, and a disturbing visual involving high-tech eyeball upgrades.

“The Father and the Belt” by Amos Parker shows God and the Devil in an unlikely reunion, both of them old and weary. They have plenty of time to reflect, speculate, ignore each other or challenge each other as they travel in a spaceship looking for something to do, now that global climate change has killed off the last humans on Earth. Most readers will likely find this clever and amusing, but for me it was a jarring fantasy departure from rest of the anthology. It also reminds me, somehow, that the Book of Job is not original to the Old Testament, but is based on an older story straight out of Egypt. This exhausted, anthropomorphic God lacks the quirkiness of George Burns in the movie “Oh, God!”, but the devil catches a second wind and inspires more empathy and admiration than God does. The surprise at the end isn’t much of a surprise, but it’s gratifying.

For me, the fun of this anthology is more in the science than the humanity. Tell me more about Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs)—ice, asteroids, planetoids—and the dwarf planet Pluto. I’ve had my fill of “no matter where we go, we take ourselves with us,” and “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” but I can’t get too much of starships, hotels scooped out of asteroids, or scientists who speak of an Oort Cloud so vast that even traveling at nearly a million miles a day, NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft will take 300 years to reach it and 30,000 more years to exit the other side. (“Visions III: Inside the Kuiper Belt,” Edited by Carrol Fix, Lillicat Publishers)4stars —Carol Kean


More Difficult, More Fun

WE MAY TEACH OUR CHILDREN to take turns as part of learning to share. But deep down, we don’t like to wait our turn. Sometimes waiting your turn means your opponent makes the first few moves that eventually lead to checkmate. Or standing by as your best soldiers fall into the crossfire of two powerful enemies. But soon it is our turn again, and we hope our opponent watches helplessly as we crush them completely.

Regardless of how “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” ended, humanity lost. Twenty years have gone by and the original alien invasion has become complete world domination. The unnamed commander, whom the XCOM player has used throughout the series to control the soldiers, is missing and XCOM has gone underground. The aliens, called the Advent, say they are working to live in harmony with humanity. But something very bad is happening behind the scenes.

Central, the voice of reason and the commander’s right hand man, undertakes a mission with some young XCOM members and finds the commander, locked in stasis for some time with the Advent using his military genius against the humans. Now the commander is once again in control of XCOM. But there is no underground base. XCOM is using an alien convoy as a mobile base. XCOM begins missions to expand and help other members of the resistance only to stumble upon a series of hidden events, dubbed Avatar, which sets the doomsday clock into motion.

Like the other games in the series, “XCOM 2: Anarchy’s Children” is a turn-based game. Playing as the commander, players recruit, train, equip, and select soldiers for missions. The player has to decide were to move the soldiers, whether or not to place them in partial or full cover, and what action they need to take. This time around, all soldiers start each mission concealed. So players have the upper hand and can deploy troops in the best possible spots to win their first attacking turn.

Sounds easy? It’s not. Most missions give players a limited amount of turns, generally eight to twelve, before they lose. Once you attack, you can no longer remain under cover. And like all XCOM games, there is a percentage of success with each attack, but most players will find that number much lower than they want it to be. Players have the options of using “attack,” “overwatch” (where they can attack if the enemy moves), “hunker down” that adds protection, or special moves like “heal other players,” “hack computers,“ or “throwing grenades.”

At the base, players can train their troops, assigning them one of five classes, each having a set of skills that is beneficial to the entire team. Players can also research technology that gives them better weapons and armor, or helps them contact more resistance members to increase monthly income. These new weapons and armor really help turn the tide, but there are also missions at the xcom 2base that help slow the doomsday clock, or missions players have to take that prevent them from finishing the research. And some times you can’t get your weapons and armor and complete the missions at the same time.

The missions themselves are slightly different from those in previous games. Instead of missions playing out the same way over and over again, there is an AI that helps mix things up, increasing replayability. A player has the choice of main missions whenever they unlock that mission’s region. If the main missions are ignored too long, the game ends and you lose.

Along with concealment and new base, the game allows for customization of each soldier. It allows players to get to know their troops. This may be a bad thing, because you will lose soldiers at some point. The troops themselves gain benefits as they rank up higher and higher, but if they get wounded they may have to sit out a few missions. It helps to have a few of each soldier hanging around so you can cycle them out as you move through missions.

The aliens have been updated, as well. A majority of them are tougher, better equipped, and just harder to kill. They are also smarter this go round so you need to really think about your moves before you hit the end turn button.

Although graphics aren’t the main focus of this game, the sheer challenge is. There are some beautiful cut scenes. The supporting cast gradually reveals their back stories as you play through, making them a little more relatable in this game versus the older games.

The only real downside is that this is a only a computer game at the moment. It is available on PC and Mac but it’s more for the PC crowd. PCs are generally more powerful and games tend to work better on them. Players also require a Steam account to play the game. It may get ported to consoles and mobile platforms at some point in the future.

This XCOM is a vast improvement over the rest of the series and a game that you will love to play over and over, although the computer will usually stomp you into the ground. Lose sleep and keep trying to play just one more mission. (“XCOM 2: Anarchy’s Children,” Firaxis Games, PC) 4stars—Adam Armstrong


Google Glass in Manhattan

THESE DAYS WHEN WE THINK of Virtual Reality glasses, we think of Google Glass. The premise of “Creative Control,” directed by Benjamin Dickinson, is that another (smaller) company called Augmenta comes up with a competing pair of VR shades and hires a Manhattan ad agency to get the word out about their product.

About halfway through this film I realized that this was basically a Woody Allen film, except more hip. The parallel between Woody Allen movies and this film is made stronger by the fact that the protagonist, David, is portrayed by Benjamin Dickinson, who is also the director. Also important is that the movie takes place in Manhattan. These people could exist nowhere else.

The film has a lot to say, and some parts are really funny. It moves at a fast pace—if I blinked I might miss something important. However, it was difficult to care about these people—no one seemed likable. Ultimately the science fiction creative controlelements concerning Virtual Reality are subsumed into a story about unrequited love. David falls in love with his best friend’s girlfriend. This involves keeping his feelings hidden from his actual girlfriend and his best friend. What to do? He retreats into Virtual Reality and creates an avatar of the woman he is smitten with, Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen).

If you’re looking for a movie that explores the impact Virtual Reality glasses will have on society, this isn’t the film for you. The Virtual Reality glasses are almost a side issue. What it’s really about are these unlikable Manhattanites, their careers, and their loves. If you’re interested in these people and/or live in Manhattan, this film might appeal to you. The movie is beautifully shot in black-and-white, and it’s worth watching just because of the cinematography. Some of the jokes are funny (I especially liked the send-up of Yoga) but towards the end of the film I was wishing it to be over. I had ceased to care about the main character. His life seemed implausible, perhaps because I don’t live in Manhattan and/or perhaps he’s not portrayed with a lot of depth.

“Creative Control” does raise an interesting question. Will mature adults get confused about where Virtual Reality ends and where Real Reality begins if Virtual Reality glasses become ubiquitous? The film answers with a resounding “Yes!” and shows how tenuous some people’s connection to reality is even without VR glasses. The main character swallows handfuls of futuristic-looking pills, drinks a lot, and inhales a smokeable anti-anxiety medication called Phalinex. The film makes the salient point that Virtual Reality glasses will push some people over the edge. It would have been a better film if it had not softened this point at the very end!

This is an entertaining, well-written film that’s beautifully lensed. Will such a Manhattan-centric film play in Peoria? It’s Dickinson’s first film and a good debut—but I don’t think it’s going to find a large audience. (“Creative Control,” directed by Benjamin Dickinson, Magnolia Pictures) 3stars—Joshua Berlow