Wednesday, March 31, 2010

SF News: Hubble at the Liberty Science Center

Attention: Due to flooding in my area, I am bereft of a stable internet connection and am thus updating as I can.  I will try to continue on through the rest of the week as follows: Book Review on Thursday, Gaming Review on Friday, and TV/Movie review on Saturday (that's right, Bob, we are in the presence of the rare Saturday update.  Anyway, we now return you to your regularly scheduled program...

Prepare yourself for a journey through time and space, complete  with the most stunning visuals your are likely to see this side of planet Earth.  No, I am not talking about the next Star Trek movie, I am talking about the IMAX Hubble experience.  I was honored to be invited to a press event at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, NJ on Saturday for a screening of this magnificent film and a tour of the renovated facilities.

First thing we noticed when we arrived at the Liberty Science Center was the amazing new IMAX Dome.  For those of us who were not aware, this 88 foot diameter IMAX Dome is currently the largest in the nation, and as impressive as it is from the outside, that is nothing compared to the view from the inside.  On arrival, we quickly made our way up to the theatre on the second level, and took seats near a structure referred to as 'The Doghouse'.  These were, it was explained to us, the best seats in the house, a statement which I can hardly argue with.  Eventually, the lights dimmed and the presentation began.
  Hubble is a visual feast which combines gorgeous pictures taken from the Hubble Deep Space Telescope with footage shot by the astronauts of the last Hubble repair mission from May 2009.  
Narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, this is a visual event that really beggars the imagination.  There were many great visuals, however the sequence that most stuck in my mind was a journey through space and time to the Orion Nebula that has to be seen to be believed.

My recommendation: Contact the
Liberty Science Center and go see this as soon as possible!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Week at a Glance: March 29 to April 5

Well, here we are in a new week, and what do we see?  Well a whole mess of new stuff cascading across our consciousness!  Let's take a look at some of the most interesting stuff I can dig up...

In the SFSNNJ:
While there are no events in the group this week, there is still a whole lot going on at our Yahoo Group open forum.  Check out the link to the right and catch up on the conversations.

In the Movies:
Last week's big new movie release, How to Train Your Dragon, toppled Alice In Wonderland from its perch at the top of the box office, but can it hold out against this week's up and comers?  The only truly genre film coming out this week is Clash of the Titans, but this one looks like it could be a hugely profitable juggernaut!  On the family side, Furry Vengeance is looking to take the market share from How to Train Your Dragon, but somehow, given the pre-release lack of hype, I doubt it will gain any traction.

On DVD & Blu-Ray:
From the ridiculous to the sublime, look for a bunch of new releases this week at your local video stores and libraries.  Sherlock Holmes comes home, but can the venerable detective hold his own against the Alvin and the Chipmunks Squeakquel in DVD sales?  Also, look for The Baader Meinhof Complex, which, while not SF or genre, is a taught and fantastic historical piece from 2008 exploring the crazy Germans of the 1960-1970 revolutionary organization.  IMAX Under the Sea hits the shelves, giving those with an interest in the oceans of the Earth a wonderfully beautiful look at the splendor of the deeps, without the tedious and semi-intelligible gabble of a Jacques Cousteau narrative.  Finally, I Sell The Dead explores a creepy horror scene of ghouls and corpse eaters, right in the luxury of your living room.

On TV:
Although Caprica is now going on hiatus until summer, weep not for Stargate: Universe returns to SyFy!  The second half of season one promises to be full of adventure and excitement, with action around every corner as the cast of survivors tries to cope with life stranded on the Ancient starship Destiny.  I look forward to Friday, when I can watch the new episode, Space.

In Video Games:
Well, this week sees a plethora of games plastered around the stores.  The most important release of the week is, of course, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II: Stimulus Package, which hits stores on the 30th for all major platforms.  PC Gamers can look for the first expansion to the popular Mount and Blade series with the release of Mount & Blade: Warband, as well as titles like Commando Complete, Heroes of Gaia, Icebreakers, Tank Ace, Three Kingdoms, and Bittos eMortal Online joins the crowded ranks of the MMORPG world this week, though given the massive and sweeping presence of the MMO market, it likely will not hold its own for long.  Looking for some new games on the PS3, well here comes Bomberman Live: Battlefest and the latest Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and the Damned game.  XBox 360 sees a lot of action this week with games like Battle for Atlantis, Starhammer Tactics, Zeno Clash Ultimate Edition, and the much anticipated return of the little blue cyborg who could with MegaMan 10.

In Books:
Ian McEwan's Solar debuts this week, and it looks like this one will be the big splash in the book world.  In other book news, keep your eyes peeled for the latest Patricia Briggs novel, Silver Borne, the fifth book in her Mercy Thompson series.  A new series hitting bookshelves this week, Changless (The Parasol Protectorate) by Gail Carriger, shows us the upside of young, proper, lycanthropes, while The Earth We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer takes us into the realm of post-apocalyptic survival one more time.

Friday, March 26, 2010

TV & Movies: Caprica Mid-Season Finale Tonight

Last week I saw a rough cut of this week's episode, and I have to say that I am looking forward to seeing the final product tonight.  Of course, I will be seeing the extra-late showing since this evening is also the night of Modern Masters, meeting up in Ramsey at the Borders Interstate Plaza, but still, it will be one heck of a ride!  I know!

Why am I writing about Caprica again, you ask?  Well, it is going to be a while before we get to see more episodes, so I am getting it out of the way now.

Well, what can I say about Caprica that I did not address in last week's write-up of the Caprica panel?  Well, first of all, I have to say that never before has a show so obviously diversified its viewers.  Seriously, though, many critics posit that this show is a polarizing effort, but I often wonder if they are watching the same program that I am.  In every episode of Caprica thus far we have seen a variety of differing views and opinions, and the show does not espouse or promote any one of them over the others (except maybe the concept that blowing up commuter trains is bad).  Say what you like about Caprica, it is not a single view-point show.

So, Todd, what issues are important to you?  Well, I have to admit that I love the whole big gay gangster scene (more scenes of Sasha Roiz would be greatly appreciated), but that sort of goes without saying.  Religious differences, though interesting, are not necessarily a subject that excites much interest in me, though I have to admit to sharing Sister Clarice's interest in apotheosis, though we in the real world would call it extropianism, or singularity, or transhumanism.  How about the impact of technology on people?  Well, I tend to think that the show tends to look at science and technology as dirty words, and it seems to me that although they do try to show both sides of the argument, they stress the statement that high technology dehumanizes and debases the players more than it brings folk together (it should be noted that this has been said about many things over the past few years, and psychologists have pretty well debunked that, even though the myth persists).  Social differences are, to me, the most important and interesting things that the show addresses, and Caprica does a great job of showcasing these issues.

To wrap up: If you aren't watching, catch up On Demand or online and watch tonight!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Gaming: AT-43 A New Option Part 3

The Armies

Like most wargames, AT-43 pits different kinds of forces against one another in battle.  These forces range in scope and style of play from the hordes of Red Blok to the high tech sophistication of the Therians or Cogs.  One interesting thing is that each army has a number of different factions which determine the force organization and the extra advantages and disadvantages at your disposal.  Since the Army books are now available for free on Rakham's website, I am going to only briefly describe each force and its playstyle so you can begin to think about what army fits your personal ideals.

One of the few actually alien forces in the current AT-43 group, the Cogs rely on cloning and high technology to obtain dominance on the field of battle.  Though their forces are few in number, their cloaking shields, which allow them a cover save even in open terrain, make them pretty hard to kill.  Cog Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFVs) are basically giant robots with highly sophisticated weapons.  With their technological superiority well established, the Cogs can easily reach out and punch someone, or run up and slaughter their enemies in brutal assaults.

One of the big disadvantages of the Cogs is their reliance on going first.  A Cog commander generally wants to wager as much as he or she can to ensure they have the initiative each turn.  Why?  A Cog commander has lots of long range, accurate shooting units, which should be leapfrogged one in front of the other to give inactive units the benefit of cover from shielded units out front. 

Another alien species, well another non-human species at any rate, is the Kharmans.  If you have seen the movie Planet of the Apes, you have the basic idea of how the Kharmans work.  The primary discipline of the Kharmans is to hit hard and fast.  Kharman troops are brutal in close combat, with a number of long range artillery support troop options, and many troopers have the ability to lift even Type II AFVs.  Kharman AFVs are hover-bikes with great maneuverability and speed, very much unlike the walker variants of the other race.  Kharmans love a static enemy against whom they can use their best advantages.

While speed and maneuverability are great assets, it should be pointed out that the Kharmans don't have it all their way.  The greatest disadvantage that the Kharmans have is a dearth of units.  The average troop unit is 2-4 men, smaller even than the Cogs' units, and there are not anywhere near as wide a variety of special weapons available to most of those troop choices to give the the punch they need to deal with heavy AFV opposition.  Kharman AFVs are incredibly fragile, trading armor for speed, and are suited more to smashing troops than vehicles.

One of the most recent additions to the AT-43 universe, Oni Corporation is possibly also one of the strangest.  Unlike the two other human factions, Red Blok and UNA, Oni forces are mercenaries and can be incorporated into any other army list, giving the less flexible armies a more potent stable of options.  Oni troops come in two flavors: plain old humans and Zombies!  That's right, Oni uses virus Zombies with guns and weapons that turn opponents' units into more virus Zombies.  In spite of this major advantage in the ability to increase your forces with a volley of Zombie Gun blasts, Oni is a bit lite on diversity.  Oni AFVs represent the first wheeled vehicles in the game, but while they are fairly hardy, they are nowhere near as versatile as the walkers of other races.  One other interesting point in the Oni's favor is that some of their AFVs are also transports, allowing you to get the normally pokey zombies to the front lines more quickly and keeping your OniKorps mercs alive a bit longer.

So far as I have seen, the only real disadvantage of the ONI is that their AFVs are incredibly expensive compared to the slightly more survivable options of other races.  They are easily immobilized as they have only one structure point for propulsion, and generally only get one or two shots a turn.  While all of their vehicles have the mechanic ability, a decent volley of UNA missiles or Red Blok rockets will shred them pretty quickly.

Red Blok
My personal favorites in the AT-43 universe, the collectivist forces of Hades and the Red Blok, are basically space Commies!  Red Blok has the worst technology in comparison to the other races, but this is more than made for by the massed numbers that the collectivist forces can put into the field.  Red Blok troops have little in the way of defenses, aside from numbers and medics, and their weapons really rely on volume of fire to make up for their lack of accuracy.  Where the Red Blok shines, however is in their Type III infantry and AFVs.  Both are extremely capable and can fill multiple roles far better than their UNA counterparts.

Red Blok's primary disadvantage is in the fragility of its Type I and Type II troops, and their lack of any real assault elements.  While this may not seem a particularly big problem, all it takes is one enemy assault to teach you not to get too close to your enemies.  Another big problem is the Red Blok infantry's lack of survivability against pretty much anything.  Even the weakest of enemy guns will easily mow down large numbers of Krasnye and RPG Soldaty.

While I have fought many battles against the Therians, and do not own enough of them to field a coherent force, I have to admit that the Morphos are probably my second favorite army.  They are a tough nut to crack, with the strongest and most powerful troops in the game, coupled with the best AFVs.  Couple these incredibly tough units with Hero units that are well nigh immortal, and you have an army that can pound even the toughest units into the dirt.

All this comes at a pretty hefty price, though, as the Therians have to pay a high cost per unit for their fancy ray-guns and immediate repairs, and regeneration.  The Therians use up leadership points faster than you can blink, and anything that restricts their leadership will cripple their ability to do all the fancy tricks that their nano-machines make possible.    Of course, even without the nano-shenanegans, the Therians are still the biggest bad-boys around, so beware!

The United Nations of Ava, or UNA, are the good guys (unless you are a space commie), and their forces are built to be effective in all situations.  Their troops can be put through their paces in pretty much any role from anti-personnel to anti-AFV, and their effectiveness is unquestioned.  Their AFVs, however, are fairly lackluster, with only a few good Type I and Type II choices in the field.  UNA has some pretty competitive heroes, though, and an army with Captain Newton at the front can pack a pretty nasty whallop.

The main disadvantage of the UNA: a lack of effective vehicles.  The UNA Fire Toad is probably the best AFV in the game, but the problem is that most of the other AFVs fill functions that can be better done with infantry.  Another issue with UNA is a definite need to have more and more Type III infantry units to combat the more survivable armies.

So those are the current armies at a glance.  For more information on each individual army, please visit the Rakham corporate website at

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Uncanny by Simon R. Green

The latest entry in Simon R. Green's John Taylor series brings us again to the depths of the Nightside, the secret twisted heart deep below the streets of London, where John Taylor is faced with a series of difficult and horrible choices.  Yeah, I know what you are thinking: What else is new?  Well, this is the first book where events of Green's newer Drood series (The Man With the Golden Torc, Daemons Are Forever, and The Spy Who Haunted Me) actually impact the Nightside.

For those of us, like myself, who have been reading Simon Green since the days of Hawk & Fisher, we all know that Green's various universes, with the exception of the Hawk & Fisher universe, are intertwined.  Often characters from Drinking Midnight Wine or Shadows Fall or even Deathstalker will make appearances in the Nightside, or among the Droods, but generally these are specific to the events of the story itself.  In the case of this book, Green links events discussed in The Spy Who Haunted Me with the ongoing action dealing with Walker in The Good, The Bad, & The Uncanny.  While I do not wish to give any spoilers for either book, I will say that there is something going on with Walker that effects the events of both books, and the bridging of the two series likely means some very exciting things on the horizon for both.

OK, on to the book itself.  Like most of Green's stories, this one starts off with a tangential mission that will be tied into the main story later in the book.  That is the point at which this story departs from the standard Green formula.  Unlike most of his works, The Good, The Bad, & The Uncanny, contains not one but three different mysteries to be resolved.  The initiating action of the story leads into an Elf hiring John Taylor to escort him to a fairy gate at the edge of the Nightside.  This takes up a full third of the book and introduces a bunch of excellent new characters like Ms Fate, the Transvestite Avenger.  Next up, Larry Oblivion hires Taylor to help find his brother, who was last seen helping John Taylor during the Lilith War (Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth).  In the midst of this investigation, Walker keeps popping up and trying to seduce the unflappable and incorruptible Taylor to take his job as spokesman for the Authorities of the

THAC0: 6
While not the absolute best of the series, I have to say that this is a strong departure from the standard John Taylor formula, and a great book on its own.  My only real issue with the book is that reading the newer Drood series is pretty much required.  Of course, if you are a fan of Simon Green, then you have likely already done that, but if you are simply a fan of the John Taylor series, there will be a great deal of information missed without access to the other books.  Still this is a great book and a worthy addition to the John Taylor series.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Week at a Glance: March 22 to March 29

Life continues and evolves here on the East coast, and things are really starting to get interesting for the Science Fiction Society of Northern New Jersey.  We have reformatted and re-jiggered our website to showcase more of what makes us unique, and the excitement of a variety of new concepts is sweeping over us as we continue our spring cleaning.

And now for the Week at a Glance:

In SFSNNJ Club News:
Tuesday 3/23 at 7:30 PM we meet at Uno's Chicago Grill in Wayne NJ (South Route 23) for Themes of the Fantastic, where Jim Spinosa and Bill Wagner will guide the group through a discussion of Youth in Science Fiction!
Friday 3/26 at 8 PM Modern Masters will be meeting at Borders Books & Music in Ramsey Interstate Shopping Center to discuss C.J. Cherryh's Cyteen.

In the Movies:

Alice in Wonderland continues to dominate at the box office, even though a slew of new titles came out last weekend.  Two new genre movies coming out this week are Hot Tub Time Machine and How to Train Your Dragon.  With Clash of the Titans in 3D and more coming soon, this looks like it could be a big year for movies.

On DVD & Blu-Ray:

The Men Who Stare At Goats hits the small screen, along with a huge number of Horror movies this week.  Zombies of Mass Destruction, and Dread join the ranks of the After Dark Horror Festival offerings on DVD, and the film adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr. Fox joins Toy Story and Toy Story 2 on the animated front.  You can also catch Ian McKellen in The Prisoner, and watch vampires in The Lair Season 3

In Video Games:
Just Cause II emerges this week, along with Settlers to entice PC Gamers with interesting concepts.  Red Steel II thunders onto a Wii near you, while Nintendo DS players can work their wiles in WarioWare.  In Xbox 360 and PS3 releases, we have a new Prison Break game as well as Quantum Theory, a new SF TPS apparently in the vein of Gears of War and the like.

In Books:

The big new release in Books this week is Walter Mosley's Known to Evil, the second book in his new Leonid McGill mystery franchise.  Another series entry for the week is Peter Hamilton's The Temporal Void, the third book in the Void series.  If you are looking for a more romantic story, check out Rebels and Lovers by Linnea Sinclair.  For fans of first person shooter video games, Peter David's new HALO  book, Helljumper, hits the shelves this week.  The end of the week will see the release of Grand Central Arena by Ryk Spoor.

Friday, March 19, 2010

TV & Movies: Paley Center Caprica Panel

For those in the know, Wednesday 3/17 I was at the Paley Center for Media with my friend Craig Hatler to watch two preview episodes of the hit SyFy show Caprica, and to enjoy a panel discussion with actors and production staff after the previews.  I want to give a quick shout out to Tony Tellado, past guest of the SFSNNJ, who was there for his podcast Sci-Fi Talk (

If you have not been following the show, it is a prequel series to the multiple award winning Battlestar Galactic series.  The story, which details the struggles of two families, the Adamas and the Graystones, in the aftermath of the deaths of Dr. Daniel Graystone's (Eric Stoltz) daughter, Zoe Graystone (Alessandra Torresani), and Joseph Adama's (Esai Morales) wife and daughter.  Graystone, a brilliant cyberneticist who had developed a massive virtual reality internet, is in the midst of developing Cylons for a military contract when he discovers that his daughter has created an artificial version of herself.  Adama, who is a lawyer for the Tauron mob, in which his brother Sam Adama (Sasha Roiz) is a high ranking enforcer.  The show deals with all manner of social issues including gender and sexual orientation, drug abuse, family tragedy, religious schism, terrorism, and morality.  Featuring a stellar cast and great writing by veteran writers like Ron Moore (Star Trek TNG, Battlestar Galactica), Jane Espensen (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and Remi Aubuchon (24), and a stable of great directors and cinematic talent, Caprica is a force even greater than the series that spawned it.

I am going to say right off the bat that if you are looking for spoilers, look elsewhere.  We were asked very nicely by Mark Stern, EVP of Development for SyFy, not to leak any information about the episode content for episodes 108 and 109, which air tonight and next Friday, and I intend to honor that request.  This article will be focusing on the panel, however there is one thing I will say about these upcoming episodes: if you have not been watching, catch up and watch these!  I have to say that these will likely be the most talked about pieces of TV to come down the pike!  Anyway, on to the panel.

The panel included:
Ron Moore, Co-Creator & Executive Producer

David Eick, Executive Producer
Esai Morales, Actor "Joseph Adama"
Alessandra Torresani, Actor "Zoe Graystone"
Magda Apanowicz, Actor "Lacy Rand"
Sasha Roiz, Actor "Sam Adama"
Mark Stern: Executive Vice President of Development for the SyFy Channel
David Bushman, Curator of the Paley Center for Media, and Moderator of the Panel

The event started off with rousing applause for the two episodes that we just screened, and that I am definitely not going to talk about, and David Bushman introduced the panelists.  The first topic was on the differentiation between Caprica and Battlestar Galactica, and David Eick was quick to point out that Caprica is a major change in tone and context from BSG, and was more akin to "Dallas in space, where the robots are the oil."  Everything from that point on was raucous and fun. 

Here are some random quotes from the panel with a few notes on the topics:

Question: What is it like operating in a show with no absolute moral authority, like Adama and Roslin were in BSG?

Sasha Roiz: This world is so morally ambiguous my character actually comes across really well.
Esai Morales: Well, it's not really Battlestar, we are reverse engineering our characters as we go, here.
Esai Morales: You have to keep in mind that no one is evil all the time, no one is good all the time either.
Magda Apanowicz: It is more like reality because we have to keep choosing between really bad choices all the time, and we mostly just make bad choices because they are the least bad.
Alessandra Torresani: She (Zoe) has been betrayed by everyone, but she grows and changes and evolves in every scene and every episode.
David Eick: It's like we are dancing on the edge of  the precipice, and the fact that we could fall off is exciting.
Esai Morales: What's great is that it gives the audience the chance to decide for themselves who is right or wrong.
Alessandra Torresani: Yeah, you can root for a different character in each episode!

Ron Moore: People are complicated, and a tendency of TV is to simplify the characters.  We wanted these to be more like real people.

Question: How was the casting process?
David Eick: You really need to get lucky with actors and with casting.  You can't have a firm idea of who is who until you start looking at parts.
Mark Stern: Whatever they said they liked, they got!
Ron Moore: Casting and writing are organic processes, they grow out of what you are doing.
Sasha Roiz: Well, I initially auditioned for Lacy, the best friend!  Seriously, I was up for the part of Tomas Vergis, but got cast in as Sam Adama, and yeah, I'm a thug.  They must have liked me though, 'cause next thing I knew I went from guest star in the pilot to regular.
Esai Morales: I started to look around at all these other high profile actors, and I got angry.  You have to get angry for doubting yourself at times like that.
Magda Apanowicz: I hate auditions, and I was getting my wisdom teeth pulled the next day, so I figured I would get the pain of one over quickly so I could suffer through the other.
Alessandra Torresani: I cheated, during my network test I discovered that the director and I shared a love for the LA Lakers, so I think he made me look good.

Question: Do you get flack about the religious elements of  the show?
Mark Stern: They never question the important stuff, we really don't get much flak about it.
Esai Morales: I get some flak because I have a few fundamentalist relatives.  The thing is they don't understand if they are being insulted or not.  It just confuses them.

Other random stuff:
They kept shifting who would play Tomas Vergis.  Jane Espensen had suggested James Marsters, but they decided they liked him better as Barnabas (a decision I have to agree with).  Mark Stern observed that you have to be careful in dealing with characters that are linked to certain aspects of pop culture, like James Marsters and Patton Oswald.

We will be seeing a lot more of Tauron and Geminon in the next few episodes.

Amazing Stories of the 1950's was a major source of inspiration for the V-World game New Cap City, in which much of the virtual action takes place.

Smoking is in the show because they want it to look like a stylized 1950's era, but with super high tech stuff.

Esai: I was very upset because smoking is bad and kills people!
Sasha: Hey, Sam is bad and kills people too, you don't seem to have much problem with him!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Gaming: AT-43 A New Option Part 2

Welcome to the second part of my in-depth look at Rakham Entertainment's AT-43 system.  Last week we took a quick look at the Universe of AT-43, so this week, let's take a look at the rules.

The Rules

Thankfully, the rules of AT-43 are very simple, easy to learn, and contain almost no ambiguity (even though some of the earlier translating work was a bit spotty).  While the British sensibilities for flavor pepper 40K’s rules, the French need for simplicity and clarity make this a much easier game system to work in (even if the fluff is slightly ridiculous).

Like 40K, AT-43 works on points-based missions and scenarios, though there are a lot fewer models in a 2000 point army here than in 40K as most basic infantry squads run about 200 points or more.  Terrain is handled using a combination of flat terrain maps, 3-D structures and models (mostly the ubiquitous shipping containers), and in many cases, weather can be more destructive than any other force in the game.  Once the scenario is determined, the forces are assembled, and the terrain established, the mission can begin.

Now, that we have addressed terrain, we should look at the anatomy of a game round.  Each Game Round is divided up into phases, with each phase containing a unit’s full suite of activations and abilities.  Phases include activation, moving, shooting, and assaulting, during which units can be given orders, referred to as combat drills.  An interesting concept here is that the unit can be utilized in any way the player desires, so long as the Assault command is the last thing that the unit does.  What is nice about AT-43 is that each phase includes only one unit’s activation per player, and players go, in order until all units have been activated (at which point a new Game Round starts).  
Prior to the beginning of each game round, all players take the cards representing their various units, turn them face down left to right in the order they wish to activate them, and count the number of activations.  This number is added to the leadership score of the army’s commanding officer to determine your leadership points (LP) for the round.  Players can wager up to their highest ranking officer’s Leadership in LP during the initiative test, and then players go in order from highest to lowest with each player taking one activation, in order from left to right, and continuing until no more units remain inactive.

Unit activation is easy, though not as straightforward as 40K.  Each unit that has an officer (i.e. a character rank 1 or higher) can be activated for free.  Units that have no officer can be activated by spending a leadership point.  Once activated, units may act out their phase, receive drills, and capture objectives, etc.

All units move in centimeters, and may move only up to their maximum move unless they are running (in which case they cannot shoot, but can still make assault attacks if their run leaves them close enough to use them).  Unlike 40K, in this system you can shoot, then move; move then shoot; or move-shoot –move, thus allowing more flexibility for the squad.  This flexibility means that a squad in cover can always jump out and then back again to narrow down the range.  In addition, rough terrain is not random, like in 40K, but rather the unit simply moves doubles the distance traveled over the terrain.  For example, if a Red Blok Krasnye Soldaty unit with a 14cm move wishes to traverse a 4cm area of terrain, they treat that area as being 8cm for measuring purposes, which leaves them with 6cm of move once they arrive on the other side of the terrain.

Shooting is resolved in a similar way, however instead of cm, we use Rackham’s customized range bands (found on the obverse of the official rulers, each one is equal to 10cm) and the dread Universal Table of Resolution (UTR).  Unlike 40K, where weapons have arbitrary fixed ranges, in AT-43 we measure squad leader to squad leader, determine the range band, subtract accuracy, and look at the value on the UTR.  We then role the appropriate number of d6’s, and any of these that roll equal or greater than the number on the UTR are considered impacts (against which cover saves apply if the targets are in cover).  Once impacts are calculated and cover saves made, the shooters then attempt to damage their targets by taking the weapon’s strength and subtracting the unit’s defense and getting an appropriate value on the UTR, then rolling (unless the shots are auto-kills).

Assault in 40K is a completely different animal from AT-43.  While 40K gives you an extra assault move to close with an enemy, AT-43 works it so that you can use your movement in whatever increments you want to end your unit within 2.5cm of an enemy unit for close combat.  Keep in mind, though, that only models within 2.5cm of an enemy model can attack in close combat, and defenders don’t get to hit back until they activate.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book Review: The Codex Alera Series by Jim Butcher

I have always enjoyed Jim Butcher's work. When I first read Storm Front, I knew that I had something special in my hands, and I have continued to devour his Harry Dresden stories ever since. In 2004, though, Butcher came out with something new. New? Different? Fantasy?! Well, I was unsure about whether this would work or not, but I figured 'How bad could it be, it's Jim Butcher?'

When I opened up Furies of Calderon, I was prepared for the standard, run of the mill, fantasy story told in the vein of J.R.R. Tolkien, with a lone character who can use magic set amidst a mostly mundane populace (much like Harry Dresden himself), but thankfully, that is not what I got. The series started off with great a whole batch of great mysteries, political plots, and vicious infighting, then accelerated through the ensuing books to include wars, aliens, intrigue, assassinations, and so much more. What separates this from books like George R.R. Martin's or Tolkien's is the fact that everyone in this universe uses magic, save the protagonist, Tavi of Calderon, who does not have any Furies to help him.

Great writing, amazingly diverse characters, and a setting that is as much a mystery as the plots that the characters are spinning like master weavers typify these books, and fans of high fantasy and mystery will be duly rewarded for taking the plunge into the world of Alera. What is most intriguing is the evolution of Tavi from Furyless freak to Leader of the Free World. You really need to follow the story to see how amazing the mind of Tavi of Calderon is, and how special the people around him are. From his Aunt Isanna and Uncle Bernard, to his friends among the cursors, to the villainous Fidelias and the scheming First Lord Gaius Sextus, the characters that populate the world of Alera are amazing and complex.

THAC0: 3

Whether you are a fantasy aficionado or a mystery maven, there is more than enough meat on the bones of the Codex Alera series to satisfy even the most distinguished of palates. The style is easy and accessible, with characters that are easily recognizable and distinct without being cartoonish, and the wit and humor that exemplifies the Dresden Files. If you are looking for something a bit to the left of the ordinary fantasy, then I suggest stopping here for a visit.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

News: Rackham Entertainment moving in a new direction?

For a long time now, it has seemed that Rackham Entertainment, the French the French miniature modeling company in competition with Games Workshop (GW), was content to follow slavishly in the footsteps of their British rivals. With Rackham's Confrontation sales flagging in comparison to GW's Warhammer Fantasy Battles (better known in the community as WFB), and their new AT-43 system unable to get much traction against the entrenched Warhammer 40000, it seemed as though Rackham was at risk of going into the long spiral to oblivion. Enter new executive management, though, and all of that seems to be changing.

Until recently, Rackham has been content to follow GW's standard business practice and release armies and army books in a long thought out scale, hoping to make money both on the models and the books. Unfortunately for Rackham, while model sales have been OK, the sales of rules system sets and army books have not. Why? Well, the reasons are manifold, but the primary reason is that folks buy Rackham's models to proxy in other game systems like Warhammer 40000 or WFB. While this was an easy trend to spot, the real question was what to do about the problem. Rackham forwarded their gambit to overcome this loss at the beginning of March, and I have the feeling that this very well may do the trick of turning things around for them.

The beginning of March saw major changes come down the pike for Rackham's website. It went from fairly bland and clunky to sleek, exciting, and well integrated, but a new frock could not save the company by itself. The most important change to Rackham's new site was a section offering the rules for FREE. That's right, all of the rule books, all of the army books, all of the supplements, all for free. Now anyone can pick up Confrontation or AT-43 without having to spend money on the books, and can use those models they bought for a new game.

The main question now is: Is this too little too late? In spite of the lamed economy, GW is posting profits and sales increases, so obviously there is a market out there with money to spend on pushing small models around the table. Rackham's system is well developed, simple in its design, and well thought out in its execution, but will that be enough to offset the major advantages of GW? Of equal import is the question of something wargame players refer to as 'codex creep'. Rackham's most recent new armies have seen a massive scaling up of power in contrast to the original release armies. Does this mean that an entire new rules set is on the way, or that the older armies will be getting newer army books? Only time will tell, but I know that I will be watching with great anticipation.

If you would like to learn more about Rackham Entertainment or AT-43, keep your eyes on this blog on Thursday when Part 2 of my AT-43 series will come out.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Week at a Glance: March 15 to March 22

For those who are unaware, the NJ/NY area was pummeled by a major storm over the weekend. This did not keep many of us from braving the elements to chat with Jackie Kessler over at Raider Books in Suffern, but the aftermath has left us all with a variety of problems. Part of the area here is without power, meaning that my brother and sister-in-law are crashing on my bed for the duration of the emergency, and updates to the website will likely be... delayed for a bit. On a more positive note, since I have both power and internet access, blog posts will still go off as scheduled.

Now for the week at a glance:

In SFSNNJ Club News:

Our regularly scheduled Films to Come event will be going on as planned at 7p on Wednesday 3/17 in the newly set up Events area in Borders Ramsey. Special thanks to new General Manager Alicia Clouder, Josephine Brown, and all the rest of the fantastic staff at Borders Ramsey for setting up that great area! We appreciate all that you and the staff do for us!

Saturday 3/20 is the regular day for BJ Pehush's Call of Cthulu game, however with Lunacon and several other events set to go off this weekend, the game may be delayed. Look for further discussion on this at our Forum (the link is in the margin).

In the Movies:

Alice in Wonderland remains at the top of the heap in the box office, however there are a few great genre films coming to theatres everywhere this Friday. Look for Repo Men, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and IMAX: Hubble 3D at your local venues.

On DVD & Blu-Ray:

Blockbuster hits The Princess and the Frog and Twilight: New Moon makes their way to small screens everywhere this week, as do Astroboy, The Fourth Kind and Ninja Assassin. Popular TV series Breaking Bad's second season also makes its way to DVD & Blu-Ray this week.

For Video Games:

This week is a big one for PS3 owners as God of War III hits the shelves. Nintendo DS owners can look for the new Pokemon: HeartGold and Combat of Giants: Mutant Insects titles to emerge onto the scene. PC Gamers can let out the breath that they have been holding as Warhammer 40000: Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising finally arrives, along with the anticipated Metro 2033 and Wings of Prey.

For TV:

Not much in the way of new shows at the moment, but look for new episodes of Chuck and Spartacus: Blood & Sand as well as a second start for V, as they re-air the series premier. Hopefully it will do better this time!

Friday, March 12, 2010

TV & Movies: Basic Cable TV Roundup

Amazingly I have been watching TV for quite some time (shocking, I know), and I have to say that I have never been quite as impressed with the medium as I have been of late. Basic cable has finally matured into a venue for excellent programming, and as such poses a bit of a dilemma. Why, you ask? Well, mainly because there are so many worthwhile shows to watch that determining which ones will be 'appointment TV' is becoming more and more difficult, especially since many of the best shows are on opposite one another. So, what are my appointment TV picks for basic cable?

Burn Notice
For those not in the know, Burn Notice is basically an updated version of The Equalizer. An ex-spy named Michael Westin (Jeffrey Donovan) is stuck in Miami, his home town, when he is shut out of the intelligence community. His only allies are Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar), a gun-running mistress of mayhem who dated Michael during a job in Ireland; Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell), a former Navy Seal with ties to the FBI; and his dear old mum, Maddy Westin (Sharon Gless). Together they are trying to get Michael's reputation restored, learn who burned him and why, and helping folks all along the way. The show is well written, exciting, and brilliantly executed by everyone from the actors to the production staff. Some trademarks of the show include Michael's constant expository voiceover, where he explains the ins and outs of spycraft; character descriptions that appear when characters outside the main recurring cast are introduced (ex. Gilroy: Freelance
Psychopath); Sam Axe's fun-loving demeanor (ex. his target shooting trick where he shoots patterns that look like Martini glasses); Fiona's constant admonitions that Michael could solve problems more quickly with properly applied violence (ex. "In my experience, if something seems to good to be true, it's best to shoot it just in case."). Find out more at

Fans of Battlestar Galactica rejoice, for the evolution of the toaster from domestic appliance to frakking world killer is here! Seriously, though, this is a brilliant show with a huge number of encapsulated, yet interconnected, lives and stories, and an ever-expanding view of life in this futuristic society. Those who did not care as much for the direction of BSG after the first two seasons (like me, for instance) will still enjoy the universe that Ronald Moore is spinning out for us. Learn more at

The Closer
You really gotta love this ensemble cast, and Kyra Sedgewick's brilliant performance as Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson-Howard just put the cherry on top. Every aspect of this show is tight, from writing to direction to performances, and the quality of the show is something that I doubt even HBO could match. The average episode deals with the Major Crime unit run by Deputy-Chief Johnson investigating a crime while Brenda deals with a cornucopia of personal issues (moving, sick pet, arguing with fiancee/husband Fritz Howard, etc), and culminates in Brenda trying to outwit the criminal to force a confession. If you have not been watching this one, you can check out episodes on

Dark Blue
While I don't necessarily consider this 'appointment TV', I have found myself tuning in to this one as often as not (it initially benefited from being on after The Closer which is a far superior show). That being said, I would highly recommend this show for anyone looking to fill the void left by the departure of The Shield. The cast may need a bit of an overhaul, though, as the only character and actor with any interesting bits is Dylan McDermott as Carter Shaw. still there is a lot of potential there.

In Plain Sight
I have been eagerly awaiting the return of In Plain Sight since the dramatic season finale last May. This show follows the exploits of US Marshalls Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack)as she and her partner, Marshall Mann (Frederick Weller) as they try to keep witnesses stashed away in Albuquerque, NM, safe from those who would do them harm. Add a dysfunctional alcoholic mother named Jinx (Leslie Ann Warren), an irresponsible sister (Nichole Hiltz), and a sexy fiance (Christian de la Fuente) to a high-stress job, and it is a recipe for disaster. Fold in some crazy co-workers, high maintenance witnesses, hostile FBI agents, and a hot and cold relationship with the local detectives, and you have a recipe for success. The show will be coming back strong with new episodes on 3/31, but you can find out more about the backstory at

Another TNT hit, Leverage is a series about a group of criminals led by a former investigator, whose sole mission in life is to balance the scales for the little guy. Part A-Team and part Robin Hood, the Leverage team is made up of a Hacker named Hardison (Aldis Hodge), a Hitter named Elliot Spencer (Christian Kane), a Grifter named Sophie Devereaux (Gina Bellman), a Thief named Parker (Beth Riesgraf), and the Mastermind, Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton). Witty and urbane, the show is wonderfully quotable and quirky, with a heart and soul that makes you really root for the 'bad guys'. As Parker says during "The Bank Shot Job' "Sometimes bad guys are the only good guys you get." You can find out more on

White Collar
What makes this show different from Leverage? Well, it is another show about a criminal doing good, but in this case, Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) is working with FBI agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) to thwart villains and protect the little guy. A great supporting cast of fun characters, a good stable of writers, and great acting make White Collar a show to watch. Charming, sexy, and witty, though it has a fun heart, this a lot more serious a show than Leverage. Learn more at

Now these are just a few of the shows that I really enjoy on Basic Cable. Look for more on the Regular Network lineup next week , and an article on pay cable the week after. Those looking for some other interesting shows should check out Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Men of a Certain Age, and Archer for an entertaining time.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Gaming: AT-43 A New Option Part 1

Three years ago this December, French company Rackham introduced a new science fiction game system to the world: AT-43.  When first I heard rumors of a game that had Rackham models, pre-assembled and pre-painted, I was interested.  As much as I do enjoy assembling and painting 40K models, for me the most important part of the game has always been fighting battles on a tabletop.  The question became, then, would this upstart system be as good as 40K, or would I be using the models as IG and Necron proxies?

The Universe

The game AT-43 is set 43 years after the great Trauma, which is a totally unhelpful frame of reference for those of us struggling to figure out what the game is about.  One learns of the history of the Trauma and the universe around it only through the reading of the Army Books (the main rule book being pretty well devoid of fluff), as each group seems to have a different idea of what is going on.  Considering that some of these races are at least borderline psychotic I am going to give a general overview from the ‘humans’ point of view.

The world is Ava, and the people of Ava know that their ancestors must have come from the stars.  Why?  Well there are these great big pyramids full of super-high technology in the arctic, and since nobody on their world could have built them, there is no fossil record of other species with high tech, and no evidence that the humans of Ava are related to the rest of the biosphere’s evolutionary path it seems pretty obvious.  Reasoning this through, the scientists of Ava started a crash program to reverse engineer as much technology from these pyramids as they could to advance their civilization and reach for the stars, which they had determined were their birthright.  The United Nations of Ava was born and it began to colonize neighboring stars quickly.

Their first colony, Hades, was a hellish world rich in minerals which the UNA used as a sort of Botany Bay colony.  Unfortunately for them, the people of Hades revolted and formed the Revolutionary Collective of Hades and the Red Blok.  Many of the UNA’s colonies, as well as half of the nations of the world of Ava, joined the Red Blok and UNA and their Red Blok enemies began fighting a war comprised of a bitter series of brush battles, sabotage, work stoppage actions, civil riots, propaganda, espionage, and unremitting psychological warfare.  This all came to an abrupt halt with the Trauma on Ava.

While the ‘humans’ were progressing away, the Therians (humans from the planet Earth who had long ago experienced singularity and evolved into the trans-humanist state of purely mental beings living in machines) were merrily going about their business and waiting for technology and industry to reach a certain level on Ava before they enacted the next part of their devious plan.  Did I say devious plan?  Well, I guess ‘devious’ is as good a word as any (though in the case of the Therians, moronic, foolhardy, insane, nonsensical, or rabidly stupid would do as well for descriptions).  You see, in the many millennia since their transcendence from fleshy beings to computer constructs that use nanotechnology, the Therians have become obsessed with their own mortality.  Sure, they could conceivably live until the heat death of the universe, but how would they survive after the heat death of the universe (never mind that fact that this would not occur for trillions of years).  Their brilliant plan to escape the icy fingers death, therefore, was to encase as many stars as possible in Dyson Spheres, where they could live through the end of time in comfort and style.  By the way, did I mention that they decided to cheat and seed thousands of worlds around the universe with life and technological scraps so humans could evolve quickly and become high tech societies and damage their planet to the point where it can easily be converted into the beginnings of a Dyson Sphere?  Yeah, they did that too.  Great plan, huh?  Thus it was that the Therians attacked Ava, setting off the Trauma, and opening up a can of worms that is the setup for the present day’s actions.

The Trauma, as the name implies, devastated Ava, but the UNA and Red Blok were able to beat back the Therians and their simian allies, the Kharmans (whose point of view I am leaving out because it is frankly not that important).  How did the super-evolved, high tech Therians get beaten?  Well, let’s just say that playing seven hundred billion hours of Star Craft 2 and Dawn of War 3 do not make insane technologists into generals.  Although the Therians were forced to flee, a huge factory ship, the Damocles, was sighted, and the UNA began assembling troops to go forth and destroy it before it could get close to Ava.  Red Blok, who received the brunt of the damage to Ava during the Trauma, turned back to lick its wounds and continue undermining the UNA, fighting the Kharmans, and picking off any stray Therians that happen by.  The Kharmans are continuing to… seek the bushido of zen bananas or some such nonsense (they have a subservient philosophy which stresses knowing their place in the universe and serving the Therians because the Therians uplifted the Kharmans from basic apes).  What of the Therians?  Well, they are busily updating their Facebook status to “Annoyed: at war with UNA” and writing long pieces of tedious poetry on their Live Journal sites while they occasionally actually fighting the invaders on Damocles.

Yes, it is a very strange future, but then again, they are French.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Book Review: The Dreaming Void by Peter Hamilton

As a long time admirer of English science fiction writer Peter F. Hamilton, I try to keep up with his work as best I can.  The problem is that with all of the books I have to read for SFSNNJ events, I have found myself falling behind.  Why am I telling you this?  Well, mainly it is to explain why I am reviewing an older book instead of a newer one, but it is also an attempt to give you a bit of background to this particular review.

Now, a little bit of background about the book.  To start off with, The Dreaming Void is a second series set in the Commonwealth Universe.  While you do not need to have read Misspent Youth, Pandora's Star, or Judas Unchained, they will help to enrich the story if you have the time to read them.  All of the technology, philosophy, and history of those books is handled in The Dreaming Void as commonplace (i.e. it is a fact of life and handled through conversational exposition rather than tedious info-dumps).  Still, I highly recommend reading them as they will definitely give a depth of philosophical and historical content to the events chronicled in this book.

Moving along to The Dreaming Void itself, here we have an excellent example of why I love Peter Hamilton.  Brilliantly written, with a panoply of distinctive and interesting characters, The Dreaming Void picks up 1200 years after the conclusion of Judas Unchained.  In this time, humanity has begun to transcend into post-physical status (if you are unfamiliar with the concept of transhumanism or the Singularity, let me know and I will devote an article to it at some point), and have been studying the universe for quite some time.  In the midst of all of this, a researcher named Inigo, who was assigned to Centurion Station and is watching a bizarre phenomena called the Void at the center of the Milky Way slowly expand and swallow stars, begins dreaming of life forms inside of the Void.  After sharing his experiences through networked neural processors called the gaianet, a religion springs up with the desire to enter the Void and join the humans already there in their blissful existence.  When Inigo disappears, and the religion starts to prepare for its pilgrimage into the Void, agents from around human and non-human space begin their attempts to stop it, for they fear this Pilgrimage will trigger a cataclysmic expansion of the Void, causing it to devour most of the Milky Way.

What makes this book so great is its massive complexity.  Characters both inside and outside of the Void are separated by vasts gulfs of space, society, and philosophy, so as we progress find ourselves confronted with an almost prismatic array of diversity, with every character being equally memorable and understandable.  One complaint I have in this book is that there is no clear cut 'villain' presented (with the exception of the Cat, who is just a plain old vanilla sociopath following orders).  Realistically, you can understand and sympathize with all of the groups and characters in the story, and though the Living Dream's leadership and the Accelerator Faction of A.N.A. seem like they could be the 'bad guys', their motives are not in any way 'evil' and their methods are no less distasteful than the agents of other factions.  I suspect that as the story evolves in books two and three we will have a real villain to contend with, however The Dreaming Void is effective as it stands without the presence of a major foil.

THAC0: 9
While this is an intelligent and exciting book, with a lot of character development and action, it does require a great deal of patience and a desire to trek along for the long haul.  Those who love Hard Science Fiction will love the technological aspects of the story, but even if that is not quite your thing, the characters and action will keep your interest, as will the mystery and exploration.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Movie Palaces to make a return?

My father and I were talking about movie theatres and cable the other day, and I have the feeling we might actually be wrong in our prediction.  Here is the gist of our discussion:

The Situation:
Ticket prices keep going up and DVD releases keep coming faster and faster (it is now an average of 4 months between theatrical and DVD releases for most films), theatres are already complaining about the fact that they hardly see any profit on the films that they show (they make money in concessions not tickets), DVD prices and rental fees keep dropping, there is now a 3D TV coming on the market, and the average American household's buying power is shrinking.

The Prediction:
With these indicators, my father and I agree that it is more likely that theatres will increasingly regress into 'evening out' places with massive showpiece events taking the fore while minor releases get pushed straight to immediate DVD release.  Why? Well, most of the gimmicks that draw crowds to the theatres are now fairly cheaply and easily replicated in the home (with the exception of IMAX and 3D), if there is a problem with the viewing at home, you can always fix it and start over, you have no need to sit with an obnoxious crowd whose members cannot shut up during the film (as seems to happen to me about 50% of the time, a fact that those who saw Surrogates with me can attest to), you can spend $.50 on popcorn instead of $6, and you never have to worry about parking, where to eat before or after, or whether you will be shot by Joe Chill in the parking lot (though this last mostly just applies to people with the last name of Wayne). 

If you really look at it, movie theatres today are in the same position as live theatre was a hundred years ago, at least in my father and my opinions.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Week at a Glance, March 8 to March 14

And we are back...

OK, so I plan to update on weekdays while I am out of work, and here is the start of a new era.  Look for daily updates, likely until I get back to work.

So, this week in the Science Fiction Society of Northern New Jersey:
Monday 3/8: Suspense Central with Moderator Aurelia Long discusses An Audience For Einstein at Borders Books and Music in Ramsey, NJ
Tuesday 3/9: Wake for Nicholas Polyniak, beloved father of Alan Polyniak at the Allwood Funeral Home in Clifton, NJ
Wednesday 3/10: Drawing a Crowd with Moderator Tim Cook discusses Super Kids at New Moon Comics in Little Falls, NJ
Saturday 3/13: Face the Fiction presents author Jackie Kessler at Raider Bookshop in Suffern, NY.

For details on these events, check out the calendar at

On TV this week of Science Fiction and Fantasy on TV:
ABC: Though technically not SF or Fantasy, a new episode of Castle premiers tonight at 10p, and of course Lost is on Tuesday at 9p
CBS: Nothing really genre here except the Big Bang Theory on Monday at 9p
FOX: Human Target has a new episode this week on Wednesday at 8p
NBC: Chuck keeps on keeping on Monday at 8p with a new episode
SyFy: look for this week's new episode of Caprica on Friday at 9p
USA: The season finale of White Collar premiers in Tuesday at 10p

This week there are no new genre films among the big box office releases, however there are still a lot of genre films still out in the theatres around the country.

New this week:
Green Zone
Our Family Wedding
Remember Me
She's Out of My League

Genre Films still out at the theatre:
Alice in Wonderland
The Crazies
Percy Jackson and the Olympians
Shutter Island
The Wolfman

New books out this week:
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter  by Seth Grahame-Smith
The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni
Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience by Stephen Hall