Review: “Heart Of Desire – 11.11.11 Redux” by Kate Robinson (Novel)

First of all, full disclosure. As anyone who has read this old interview will know, the author of the book I’ll be reviewing today is a friend of mine from when I was at university.

Back in 2014, she sent me a first edition copy of “Heart Of Desire”. Although we had discussed the novel before it was published and I was eager to read it, I unfortunately only ended up reading about half of it at the time (probably because it was during my “watch DVDs instead of reading books” phase).

However, shortly after finishing the previous book I reviewed, I suddenly remembered this book. And, since I seem to be more interested in reading than I was a couple of years ago, I thought that I’d give this book another try. After all, I was curious to see how the story would finish (and, wow, I’ve just noticed that I’m mentioned in the acknowledgments at the end of the book 🙂 )

So, let’s take a look at “Heart Of Desire”. Needless to say, this review will contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2014 Tootie-Do Press (US) paperback edition of “Heart Of Desire” that I read.

“Heart Of Desire” is a 1990s-style, new age-themed sci-fi/thriller/alternate history novel that takes place in America. The story begins during the early-mid 2000s with a character called Teresa Vaughn, whose infant daughter Mikka mysteriously disappears and then reappears a few minutes later.

Then we flash forward to August 2009. The 44th US President – Harris Cantrell Henry – is travelling to Air Force One, when he receives an alarming report from NIHSA (an amalgamation of several US agencies).

Once the plane is in the air, President Henry is in the middle of a meeting with his staff when he suddenly has a disturbing vision of mysterious telepathic beings called “reviewers” who warn him not to interfere with their plans to alter Earth….

One of the first things that I will say about “Heart Of Desire” is that it is a brilliantly eccentric mixture of “X-Files”-style conspiracy paranoia, 1960s-style new age mysticism and something like a low-mid budget 1990s-style thriller movie. It’s different to pretty much any other novel that I’ve read and, although it probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it certainly grew on me as I kept reading it.

My reactions to reading “Heart Of Desire” were surprisingly varied. Initially, it just seemed like a reasonably slow-paced sci-fi/political thriller novel, then it went in a much more suspenseful and paranoid direction, then it was gloriously cheesy (in the way that the best “so bad that it’s good” movies are) and then, during the final third or so, the story turns into a darker and more gripping thriller story. Plus, although “Heart Of Desire” doesn’t contain that many horror elements, there are at least a couple of disturbing moments that will catch you by surprise too.

If you’ve ever watched a few seasons of “The X-Files”, watched “Twin Peaks” and/or read a few new age books, then you’ll probably love the fact that this novel references pretty much every “classic” conspiracy theory and/or new age thing under the sun.

There are references to: ancient aliens, CIA plots, Bible codes, morgellons, akashic records, Route 666, MKULTRA, UFOs, 2012, reptilians, Operation Paperclip, astral projection, the Age Of Aquarius, Area 51 etc.. The sheer number of references gives this story a gloriously over-the-top quality that really brought a smile to my face.

This also helps to add to the story’s endearingly nostalgic 1990s-style atmosphere too – since it evokes a more innocent time when conspiracy theories were hilariously bizarre things – rather than grim political reality (eg: the Snowden revelations, Trump’s tweeting, Brexit etc..).

Although this story is set in the early 2010s, it is a very 1990s novel. As mentioned in the author interview, the first draft of the story was written in 1999 and later updated. Everything from the story’s optimistic “The West Wing”-style depiction of the US presidency to the occasional 90s cultural reference and the “X-Files” style focus on conspiracy theories is wonderfully ’90s 🙂 Seriously, if you want some 1990s nostalgia, then this story is worth taking a look at.

In terms of the narration, the novel uses a mixture of slightly informal narration, more “matter of fact” thriller novel narration and more descriptive “literary” narration. Although this style takes a little while to get used to, it works really well for the most part. Likewise, aside from the occasional lecture or info dump, the dialogue in this story is reasonably well-written too. It’s kind of a like a mixture of more realistic dialogue and more stylised movie/TV-style dialogue.

This story is a fairly political one that leans fairly heavily to the left (in a slightly 1960s-style way) with themes including the environment, Buddhism, corporate manipulation, right-wing hypocrisy etc.. Although a lot of this stuff works really well in the context of the story, the novel does include the occasional lecture or moment of unintentional comedy. But, fairly often, the political elements are handled in a more understated way (eg: by just leading by example with regard to the characters, the descriptions, the story itself etc..).

Plus, the more earnestly idealistic elements of the story help to add to the 1960s-90s style atmosphere of the story, whilst also adding some originality too. Seriously, at least a couple of the main characters are hippies (New Age ministers to be precise) – how often do you see this in a thriller novel?

As for the story’s characters, they’re reasonably good. The novel contains a mixture of more “realistic” characters, such as Teresa (a former journalist) and President Henry (a vaguely Obama/ Bill Clinton-like character), several mysteriously otherworldly characters, a chilling villain or two and a few 1960s-style New Age/Hippie characters too. As hinted at earlier, the fact that the novel’s protagonists aren’t really typical thriller novel protagonists also helps to add some originality to the story too.

In terms of pacing, this story is fairly ok. Whilst the novel starts off fairly slow-paced, it gradually becomes faster and more gripping as the story progresses. Even so, there are occasional moments of description or backstory when you’d expect the story to move forward in a more focused way. But, for the most part, the pacing is reasonably good. Likewise, this story is a fairly standard length (363 pages) for a modern novel and it doesn’t seem too long.

All in all, this story isn’t your typical thriller novel. If you’re a fan of the 1990s, a fan of cheesy sci-fi, interested in the 1960s and/or are Fox Mulder from “The X-Files”, then you’ll probably have fun with this novel. Yes, it’s a little bit slow to start and there’s the occasional lecture etc.. but this is the kind of story that brought a warm smile to my face in the way that the best movies and TV shows from the 1980s/90s do. As I said, it isn’t for everyone, but if you want a thriller novel that is a little bit different, then this one is well worth checking out.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

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Today’s Art (3rd January 2019)

Well, it’s been a while since I last made an inspired cyberpunk painting and, since I seem to be going through an inspired phase at the moment, I decided to take full advantage of this.

Although this digitally-edited painting included even more digital effects than I’d expected, I really like how it turned out 🙂 Plus, it also gave me a chance to experiment with using a slightly different perspective too.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Cyberpunk Ruins” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (10th November 2018)

Well, although this digitally-edited gothic sci-fi painting was a little rushed, I was feeling more inspired than I’d expected and I quite like how it turned out (even if it looked nothing like what I’d expected. Mostly since I was watching the TV mini series adaptation of “Dune” and had planned to make a desert-themed sci-fi painting, but my picture ended up going in more of a gothic/cyberpunk direction instead).

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Temple” By C. A. Brown

“Void” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

Reza raised the scanner and swept it over the churned ground. On the screen, a thousand tiny fragments glittered like stars. He tapped a couple of buttons and waited. Five seconds later, a pop-up appeared: RECONSTRUCTION ALGORITHM COULD NOT RESOLVE DATA.

Muttering under his breath, he brought up a menu and set it to reconstruct multiple objects. A memory allocation error appeared. Reza twiddled with the amplification dial on the side of the scanner, hoping that getting rid of the smaller fragments would free up some memory for the processor. But, just after he started the process again, the air around him cooled by several degrees.

Without even thinking, he reached back and flipped up the hood of his anorak before returning to the screen. It was still processing. Curses and prayers competed for his attention. The air got colder. The little spinning thing on the screen moved slightly faster. Come on!

A reassuring ping echoed through the air. As Reza raised his head to the grey sky with relief, the rain fell. There was no small pattering of drizzle to give him a moment’s grace. One second, the air was cold and heavy. The next, it was a solid sheet of rain. Without even thinking, he hunched over the scanner and ran.

His feet squelched and slopped. He almost slipped. He kept running. Keep the scanner dry. He didn’t look up. He knew the route.

At least, he thought he did. As his shoulder slammed into the scorched trunk of an old tree, Reza realised that he was lost. The bare branches gave him little shelter. He ignored the ache in his shoulder and stayed crouched over the scanner. Worst case scenario, the rain will pass in six hours.

Luckily for him, he didn’t have to wait six hours. Above the furious pounding of the rain, Reza heard an intermittent slopping sound. Turning his head sideways, he saw a bright orange shape moving through the rain. A smile crossed his face. He kept crouching. Two minutes later, a hand touched his shoulder.

Beside him, Suzy shouted: ‘Come on! Follow me.’ She fumbled through her anorak and pulled out a plastic bag: ‘Cover it with this.’

As soon as Reza had got the scanner covered, they ran. It was only when the half-buried tube of the site station began to appear that Reza realised where he’d gone wrong. With all of the chaos of trying to get a reading before the day’s rains hit, he’d wandered into the neighbouring field. It was easy enough to do when your eyes were glued to a screen for hours.

Suzy held the door open as Reza rushed into the corrugated tube. Seconds later, she clanged it shut. Above their heavy breathing, rain pinged off of the roof like machine gun fire. The piercing smell of petrichor hung in the air. Reza fumbled with the bag and handed it back to Suzy. She placed it on the pitted wooden table before staring at the scanner screen. It was still working.

‘Did you get anything?’ Suzy sat down and reached for the scratched biscuit tin.

Reza pressed a few buttons on the scanner ‘Yeah. Hmmm…. Nothing in the database about it. Hold on, I’ll try a date extrapolation. Might be a few minutes.’

Pulling two misshapen biscuits from the tin, Suzy leaned over the scanner. On the flickering screen, a flat black ingot encased in shattered glass sat beside a loading bar. It made no sense whatsover. The glass couldn’t be there to protect whatever was inside it. Maybe it was some kind of emergency item, like the old fire alarms back at HQ? Suzy shook her head. Who would need a portable fire alarm?

She handed a biscuit to Reza. They ate in silence. The loading bar crawled forwards. Suzy smiled: ‘Have you got any idea what it is?’

‘My best guess is that it’s some kind of currency. The latest message from the London site mentioned finding thousands of items like this one amongst the bone fragments. The glass casing is a new touch, though. Maybe it was more valuable than the London specimens or something like that?’

The scanner pinged. They both stared at the screen. The number 2018 stared back at them. Reza laughed. ‘Typical.’

Suzy sighed ‘We got drenched for that? Another bloody void item.’

‘Don’t worry, we’ll piece it together eventually. I mean, we know it’s an early void item. So, it’s another clue.’

Suzy reached for another biscuit ‘Yes, but I was hoping for some real history. Some pre-2007 thing that actually told us something. It makes no sense! People before then had everything – recreational buildings, detailed machine-printed writings, tiny mechanical clocks and even reels of sequential images. Then, one year, they all just suddenly decide to start a two-century dark age. It makes no sense.’

Reza grinned and pointed at the plastic bag on the table: ‘I don’t know, they certainly knew how to make bags back then.’

Review: “X-COM: Enforcer” (Retro Computer Game)

Well, although I had planned to review one of the “The Incredible Machine” games, I ended up being distracted by various other things.

But, before I could resume playing that game, I noticed that a vaguely interesting-looking game called “X-COM: Enforcer” was on special offer on GOG. And, since it had been reduced to £1.19 at the time (and the download was just a little under 300Mb), I thought that I’d check it out.

However, I should point out that I haven’t played any of the other “X-COM” games – so, I can’t compare this one to them. Still, from what I’ve read, the other “X-COM” games are very different to this one. So, if you’re an “X-COM” fan, your experience of this game may differ from mine.

I should also point out that at least one part of the game contains FLICKERING LIGHTS, although I don’t know if they’re intense and/or fast enough to cause problems.

So, let’s take a look at “X-COM: Enforcer”:

“X-COM: Enforcer” is a sci-fi third-person shooter game from 2001 (wow, that’s… 17 years.. ago!). The game begins with a scientist building a combat robot, called “Enforcer”, to defend Earth. However, before he can finish testing the robot, an alien invasion begins…..

It literally happens just after the robot has been brought online. What perfect timing!

One of the very first things that I will say about this game is that, although it is nothing groundbreaking, it is fun! I talked about this yesterday, but the entire game is designed to keep you playing it.

Everything from the short levels (which encourage you to play “just one more level”) to the way that the game handles combat, difficulty and mission objectives are designed to make you want to play more. So, yes, this is the kind of game which you plan to play for ten minutes, but end up playing for three hours.

This game is a time bandit, but in the best possible way 🙂

Plus, despite being released in 2001, this game is very 1990s in terms of style and atmosphere. It isn’t a gritty, serious, realistic shooter or anything like that. It is a knowingly silly sci-fi action game about robots and aliens. It is bright, colourful, gameplay-focused and fun.

It also contains some vaguely imaginative weapons and some “Duke Nukem 3D“-style witty dialogue from the Enforcer too – mostly consisting of lines like “Don’t mess with Earth!” etc.. delivered in a Robocop-like voice. Which is hilarious!

It’s down to you and me, you one… oops! Wrong game!

As you would expect, the vast majority of the gameplay revolves around combat. In many ways, this game is slightly similar to games like “Alien Shooter” or “Serious Sam“. It is an intense and gloriously mindless “shoot-em-up” game with an emphasis on frantic, fast-paced combat against hordes of monsters.

The game’s combat is, in a word, streamlined. The aiming system has been simplified to a “Doom“-style horizontal-only aiming system, which reduces the need for accuracy. Your character can only hold one weapon at a time, which encourages you to search for better weapons and means that you don’t have to worry about choosing weapons in the middle of a fight. The monsters drop time-limited bonuses when defeated, which encourages you to play quickly and aggressively.

Yes, THIS is an action game!

This simplified and streamlined combat works surprisingly well, and it helps to make the experience of playing the game a lot more intense and thrilling. Like in several other third-person shooters, you can also upgrade your character and the game’s weapons between levels (using “data points” you find in-game).

Yes, you actually have to collect the points in-game. Since this game is from 2001, there are absolutely no annoying micro-transactions here 🙂

The only slight flaw with the game’s combat is that one of the weapons – the freeze gun – slows down the pace of the combat considerably, and trying to avoid picking it up can be a bit of an annoyance. Likewise, the camera angles in the game can sometimes be angled very slightly too steeply – most of the time, this isn’t an issue, but it can be annoying at times.

The game’s upgrade system is fairly good, and provides a great incentive for getting high scores in each level. However, new weapons and abilities are often only unlocked if you find “unresearched objects” scattered around certain levels. Whilst this (and another system that allows you to unlock bonus levels) provides an incentive for the player to look around and explore a bit, it also means that the player can finish the game without even seeing all of the weapons.

In terms of saving, this game uses the dreaded checkpoint saving. However, I can sort of understand this. Since it is mitigated somewhat by the short level length, the lack of a proper saving system lends each level an “all or nothing” quality which encourages you to play more and play in a more assertive fashion. However, this system annoyingly doesn’t let you revisit previous levels though.

Which is a shame since this is one of the few games where I’d actually want to revisit previous levels to grind for more points.

Thankfully, “X-COM: Enforcer” contains a proper health system – which helps to add suspense to each battle. However, a very slow and limited form of regenerating health can be unlocked as a special ability. Given the limits of this system and the fact that you actually have to earn it, it feels reasonably fair and can actually come in handy during some of the later levels.

The game’s difficulty is deliberately designed to make the player feel like an expert. Whilst I wouldn’t call this an “easy” game, I only died a few times when playing it (and at least half of those times involved accidentally falling off of ledges).

Although a couple of the boss battles are slightly challenging, the game’s difficulty curve is fairly gentle – and it is intense enough to make you feel like an expert player, whilst also being considerably more forgiving than a game like “Alien Shooter” or “Serious Sam”. Basically, this game contains the illusion of challenging difficulty – but this is done really well (eg: I really wouldn’t be surprised if the game spawned in extra health power-ups when your health is running low etc..)

Even so, the final boss battle is at least somewhat challenging 🙂

Generally, most of the game’s mission objectives revolve around destroying a certain number of alien teleporters and/or rescuing a certain number of civilians. Occasionally, the game shakes things up by including a wave shooter-style level, a boss battle or a level where you have to protect a group of trapped civilians for a certain amount of time. Surprisingly though, these simplistic objectives work really well, since they keep the emphasis firmly on the thrilling fast-paced action.

Although the game contains a few non-linear levels, many of the levels are fairly linear. This actually works quite well in this context since, again, it keeps the action fairly streamlined. Plus, there’s even an optional hint function that helps to ensure that you don’t get stuck. If this was an FPS game, I’d consider the linear levels and hint function to be a major flaw. But, since it’s an arcade-like third-person shooter, then it actually fits in with the game surprisingly well.

Yes, this feature is actually useful rather than patronising.

In terms of visual design, this game has some reasonably good moments. Although a fair number of the levels consist of very slightly generic outdoor and urban areas, there are some visually-interesting and creative levels on offer here too. And, even the more visually-boring levels aren’t that much of a problem – since they just serve as a blank canvas for the much more exciting action within each level.

I absolutely love the architecture in this level 🙂

Plus, there’s a very vaguely “Blade Runner”-style cyberpunk level too 🙂

Then there’s this shopping centre that reminds me of “Silent Hill 3”.

In terms of length, this game took me about 6-8 hours to complete. But, thanks to the fact that it consists of lots of shorter levels, the game feels a lot more substantial when you are actually playing it. Still, given how compelling this game becomes, it’s the sort of game that would still feel “too short” even if it was twice as long.

Plus, thanks to being very gameplay-focused (rather than story or puzzle-based), this game has a lot of replay value. However, your only reward for completing the game seems to be a few extra unlockable skins for the Enforcer. Still, things like finding bonus levels etc.. help to increase the replay value too.

Early in the game, the bonus levels are very generic. But, later, you can find bonus levels like this “Pac Man”-style one…

The game’s sound design is reasonably good, with the best sound effects being the satisfying drilling sound when you pick up some health or the crunchy ice sound that accompanies the freeze gun. Likewise, the music is fast repetitive electronic music, which goes reasonably well with the style of the game. One stand-out musical moment is that one piece of background music features a sample of the famous “Houston, we have a problem” recording.

The voice acting, on the other hand, is “so bad that it’s good”. Throughout the game, there are voice-overs from the scientist who built the Enforcer. He sounds endearingly annoying – that’s the best way I can think to describe his dialogue. The Enforcer’s dialogue is.. well… robotic. Still, this adds a lot of comedy value to the game – since he delivers “badass” witticisms in a Robocop-style way.

Seriously, I miss the days when action games had sarcastic protagonists…

The voice acting for the final boss is hilariously terrible though. Seriously, the voice acting in this game is quite literally “so bad that it’s good”.

All in all, although this game isn’t perfect, it’s an overlooked gem. Yes, it’s a gleefully mindless shoot-em-up game that is relatively short and not too difficult – but it is fun. It is designed to be thrilling and to make you want to play more. If you’ve played “Alien Shooter”, “Alien Shooter 2”, “Zombie Shooter”, “Painkiller” and both classic “Serious Sam” games, and you want something vaguely similar (but a bit easier), then this game is worth playing.

Most of the game’s design decisions work really well and, although it doesn’t sound like much on paper, the actual experience of playing this game is highly enjoyable. It is a thrilling, streamlined action game that will entertain you with robotic efficiency.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might just about get a four.

Three Basic Tips For Making “Old Future”-Style Sci-Fi Art

The day before I originally prepared this article, I watched the first episode of a TV show called “Philip K.Dick’s Electric Dreams“. The episode was called “The Hood Maker” and it was a dystopian sci-fi story about a future where telepathy exists.

Anyway, one of the interesting things about the set design in the episode was that it went for an “old future” kind of look – which looked like a mixture between “Nineteen Eighty-Four“, “Blade Runner” and 1970s Britain:

This is a screenshot from episode one of “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” (2017). Notice how there are typewriters instead of computers in this “futuristic” police station.

Although I could spend quite a while talking about why “old future”-style sci-fi is such a fascinating genre, I thought that I’d do something a bit more practical and give you a few tips about how to make sci-fi art in this awesome genre:

1) Materials: Whilst you can make this style of sci-fi art with any type of materials, it’s probably a good idea to include at least a few traditional materials (eg: paints, inks etc..). This is because traditional materials have a very slightly “imperfect” look to them when compared to pristine digital artwork, which can help to add a bit of an “analogue” look to your ‘old future’ art.

When making digital art or digitally-editing scanned artwork, one approach to take is to “leave the glitches in”. If you stick to using the more basic features in your image editing program and over-use them slightly, then they’re probably going to result in some interesting-looking glitches (but, MAKE A BACKUP COPY FIRST! I cannot emphasise this enough).

Carefully select the “glitches” that actually look good and leave them in. The trick here is to give the impression that your art was made on an older computer, or has been taken from a VHS tape or something like that:

If you look closely at this painting of mine, you can see some colour glitches on the ground. These were partially created by spamming the “Hue Map” (saturation shift +25 / lightness shift -3) option in an old image editing program called “JASC Paint Shop Pro 6”.

Likewise, using older image editing software or messing around with the “noise” options in your image editing program (eg: a low level of RGB noise with more red can give a picture a “grainy old film” look) can also help to make your sci-fi art look a bit more “old”.

2) Location design: Whilst I can’t tell you exactly how to make an “old future”-style location (you’ll have to find your own interpretation of this), I can give you a few pointers. The first is simply that the technology in your art should ideally be about 20-30 years out of date – in other words, things like CRT monitors, phone boxes, audio tapes, VHS cassettes, bulky machines etc..

“Antique Shop” By C. A. Brown

Likewise, try to give the locations in your artwork a slightly “run-down” look too. In addition to this, try to focus on things that have been a part of everyday life for a long time but which are slowly becoming “obsolete” in the modern world (eg: traditional high streets, cinemas, phone books, notepads, chequebooks etc..).

Another important thing to remember is to make your indoor location designs look somewhat detailed and “cluttered”. After all, old places tend to accumulate quite a bit of kipple over time..

3) Fashion designs: A lot of what makes “old future” artwork so distinctive are the fashion designs. There are at least a couple of approaches you can take to this – the classic one is to focus on including vaguely 1940s/50s-style clothing such as trenchcoats, trilby hats, pencil skirts, sharp suits, glamourous dresses etc..

“Nova Street” By C. A. Brown

“Architecture” By C. A. Brown

A slightly more subtle and updated approach to this is to include fashion designs and hairstyles from the 1970s-90s that look obviously “old” by modern standards. These can include things like voluminous 1980s-style hairdos, garishly patterned shirts, 1990s-style floral dresses, trainspotter cagoules/ shellsuits, sweatshirts used as belts, sleevelss dresses layered over T-shirts, cargo shorts/skirts, bulky plastic sunglasses etc…

“Scaffolding” By C. A. Brown

The thing to remember here is that your fashion designs shouldn’t be too old though – since, although 19th century fashions can work with some subtle alterations, they tend to look more “steampunk” than “retro-futuristic”.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂