Thursday, 10 December 2015

Free Fall and Strange Flesh Book Reviews

Thursday, December 10, 2015

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Again... it's all because of Netrunner. Playing the game has of course made me want to explore FFG's Android setting more and I decided to start by tracking down the different Android novels released during the years following the first Android board game. Most of them I managed to find through online bookshops but Golem, the first book in the Identity trilogy, proved more elusive and I had to make a special order at my local game store. While waiting for it to arrive I read the two stand alone books, Free Fall and Strange Flesh. Let's start out talking about Free Fall since that was the first book release and seem to have the broadest, most generic approach to the setting. But first, to get into the mood, let's watch a trailer for Blade Runner...

Written by William H Keith/Ian DouglasFree Fall for the most part feels like a tool to draw the reader into the world of Android. Anyone familiar with the setting knows it's a blend of many different classic sci fi works, Blade Runner being chief among them. Kevin Wilson is quick to point this out in his designers comment section in the original Android board game rulebook and he's been laying it on pretty thick in general. It's almost like a tounge in cheek über-pastiche with names like Weyland, Heinlein and Melange peppered throughout. However, although it seems like it would just be too much and become a soup of stolen ideas, the end result is greater than the sum of its parts and it works pretty well as a setting in its own right!

Still, a groan escaped me when the main character/narrator turned out to be named Rick Harrison. Yes, sometimes it's a bit too on the nose. Anyway, Rick Harrison is the typical gritty detective who tries to do the right thing in a corrupt world. The characterizations in the book aren't all that great, but most of the time they're flat stereotypes so you kind of know them already anyway. The writing in general is passable but unexciting and the story pretty much the same. If you read this book looking for a good crime story you'll likely come away a bit disappointed - however if you're in it for information about the setting it's a gold mine!

The actual board of the Android board game featuring New Angeles, The Beanstalk and the Moon.
We get to explore many of these locations in the books.
The gist of the story is that a politician connected to Humanity Labour (which is an anti-android organization) has been murdered in a very grisly fashion in a luxury hotel on the Beanstalk (the huge space elevator that the city of New Angeles has grown up around). Rick Harrison is sent to investigate but to keep it on the down low as it's a volatile situation. As the investigation progress there are human as well as bioroid (robots) and clone suspects. There's a fair bit of future CSI-ing going on which is quite well done with most of the technology used feeling reasonably realistic if you extrapolate from what we can do today. 

Still, much like the original Android game, the murder case is not really the main show - it simply serves as a framework to present the many different parts of the Android setting that makes it interesting. Although the title is a dead giveaway I was actually surprised that almost the entire book takes place on the Beanstalk or on the Moon and we only get a small section about New Angeles. The city has a much larger role in Strange Flesh though, so I suppose they planned it like this from the start. During space detective Rick Harrison's investigations we meet or at least hear about pretty much every character that is in the board game. Lily Lockwell plays a large role, as does Floyd 2X3A7C and Raymond Flint. Caprice Nisei and Louis Blaine are mentioned as well as some of the suspects like Noise, Eve and Mark Henry. In fact the only character I found conspiciously missing was the in dept bounty hunter Rachel Beckmann. When you take the time to include every other main character, why not her?

The book provides a good base coverege of the Android universe and is quite detailed on stuff like the Beanstalk. You also get a good feel for the technology level and that it is a hard sci fi setting. Smaller things like how personal communication is handled (the famous PADs of the PAD Campaign from Netrunner for example) is also expanded upon. You also get a much better idea of what bioroids and clones, the titular Androids, actually are and how they work in everyday life. Having read this book I find myself much more interested in this part of the mythos and would love to play as Floyd or Caprice if I ever get a chance to experience the board game again.

That's quite a bit of rambling with almost no information on what the book is actually about. Sometimes I impress even myself. Haha! I guess the bottom line is that it's an ok sci fi book, actually better than I expected, but great as a way to get some more meat on the bones of the setting. If you play Netrunner (or Android or Infiltration for that matter) and like the world that each datapack keeps opening up more of, my advise is to check it out. Yes, I wouldn't be surprised to see much of the same information being in the forthcoming The Worlds of Android book that FFG is releasing any day now (and I can't wait to get my hands on!), but even so I think it's well worth the time to read Free Fall. It's only 300 pages or so anyway so it should be quick.

With that said, on to the next book; Strange Flesh by Matthew Farrer.

I might as well start out by saying I liked Strange Flesh better than Free Fall. The latter was simply riddled with so many clichés that it was hard to get properly invested with the characters. While Strange Flesh is certainly no Crime and Punishment it manages to at least get me more interested in both the story and the characters. It's written in a series of flashbacks as clone detective Caprice Nisei interviews/interrogates civil rights journalist Tallie Perrault and she tells her how she ended up in a shootout with the cops.

The main focus of the book is the megacorp Jinteki and clones in general. The story follows Tallie as she is contacted by two individuals who claim to know the shady genesis of Jinteki's rise to power. This naturally involves cloning and of course, Caprice is a Jinteki clone herself specially designed for and on loan to New Angeles PD. Not just any clone but one with apparently human level intelligence and emotional capacity as well as a unique PSI ability that allows her to read minds! This is by far the most 'out there' concept in the otherwise fairly scientifically grounded Android universe and I think it was a good move to devote a book to this very special case. Overall I think it is handled well with Caprice's abilities following a certain logic and having limitations.

Her relationship with Jinteki and chairman Hiro is explored more indepth as well as some of the inner workings of Jinteki as we follow Tallie as she investigates the paper trail that her to clients present to her. I think the clone information is especially interesting as it almost reads like background to Blade Runner - explaining more about the replicants and how they're used. It's quickly clear that clones are designed and used as equipment and most of them seem much more simple or perhaps single minded than, for example, the replicants of Blade Runner (or Caprice Nisei for that matter). In one sequence (small *spoiler alert* here) a fast food worker clone is kidnapped (stolen?) and tied up in a bathroom and what he's most worried about is that he's missing work and how the restaurant might perform worse if he isn't there. He's basically programmed to love his job and only be good at what's needed for his specific line of work. It's simply good sci fi and I would have loved for the book to delve even deeper into it.

Strange Flesh is also much more focused on the city of New Angeles and while the Beanstalk makes an appearance Tallie Perrault and her clients move around many different parts of the city, allowing the reader to get better acquainted with it. There are several "famous" locations like Levy University and Broadcast Square and it's nice to connect faces to the names, as it were. While the story can be a little slow at times and Tallie often comes across as aggressively naive, I still quite liked the book and felt it was a more interesting read than Free Fall from a hollistic perspective. While it presents info on the setting it actually has a decent story to tell as well.

All in all I'm quite happy about investing some time and money in these books. Mostly because my greater comprehension of the setting (I now know New Angeles is located in former Ecuador!), but as entertaining stories as well. I've arranged to get my grubby paws on the Identity Trilogy as well, starting with Golem, and I'll make another book report once I've read that. If you decide to go for it I highly recommend plugging the Blade Runner soundtrack (preferably the Gongo edition) in your ears as you do it, it really enhances the feel!

Also, it really made me want to play the board game again. Even though I've never really been able to make it work as well as I'd like. Unfortunately I had to sell my copy when I moved back to Japan and my friend Anders got rid of his copy as well. Let me know if you have it for cheap! ;)

Don't forget, Fire Broadside is on Facebook nowadays, just like your mom and dad and uncle Enus. Until next time, dear readers!

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