Bruticus Week: Toy Review Combiner Wars Blast-Off

Bruticus Week!

Bruticus Week: day 5

Blast-Off, Aloof Astronaut

Every family has its black sheep, that’s even true of over-aggressive-giant-combining-robot families. The black sheep of the Combaticons is undoubtedly Blast Off. Despite being part of a combining team, here’s one Decepticon who very much goes his own way. This is evident from his very first appearance in the G1 Cartoon. In Episode 61, Starscream steals the “personality components”of 5 renegade Decepticons from the filing-cabinet in which they’ve been incarcerated and fits them into abandoned WW2 vehicles to make his own personal army. As the freed personalities vivify each of the rusted hulks in turn, so those vehicles change. In most cases this involves updating from vintage 1940s machines to their more modern (by 80s standards at least) equivalents. Except Blast Off, who – without explanation – promptly turns from a B-17 bomber plane into… wait for it, a space shuttle. Oooo-kay.

Combiner Wars Blast off

Combiner Wars Blast off

Despite his predominantly camo-brown paint job (because they totally have mud in space, right?) Blast Off has never really fitted with the military aesthetic of the other Combaticons, in appearance or behaviour. Sure the Eagle will land every now and then for limb duty but his favourite company is his own and he’d rather fight at extreme long distance – ideally a laser strike from orbit – rather than getting up close and face-punchy à la Brawl. Even in space you can hear the roar of this Con’s superiority complex. But does his Combiner Wars incarnation still leave Blast Off feeling so superior? Let’s survey the situation….

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Book Review: Robot Takeover by Ana Matronic

Robo ReadsTitle: Robot Takeover: 100 Iconic Robots of Myth, Popular Culture and Real Life
Author: Ana Matronic
Published: Octopus Books: 2015

Ana Matronic is most renowned as the female vocalist in American disco/glam rock band Scissor Sisters. Now it would take a heart of stone and feet like lead weights to remain entirely unmoved by the bands’ supremely ear-wormy toe-tap inducing tunes, but as I’m not a particular follower of their genre of music in general, I confess I hadn’t realised until recently that Matronic is also huge robot fan. On reflection, her (wonderful) choice of moniker and the large tattoo of circuity on her arm really should have clued me in already. But any gaps in my knowledge of or appreciation for Matronic’s interest in all things robot (which I very much share) have now been filled by the arrival of this stylish coffee table volume.

Robot Takeover book cover

Robot Takeover book cover

In Robot Takeover Matronic collects and discusses 100 of the most iconic robots, mixing characters from myth, history and pop-culture with real products of scientific invention. Her passion for the subject gleams like polished chrome from every page. With me, of course, she was preaching to the converted, but her enthusiasm is infectious nonetheless and the chatty warmth of her tone provides a wonderful counterpoint to the stereotypically cold mechanical reserve of some of the characters she discusses.

The reflection off highly polished metal, the red glow of a light-emitting diode, the sound of a vocoder: these are a few of my favourite things. When people ask, ‘why robots?’ I can get a bit confused. Doesn’t everybody love robots?

If you’re already one of Matronic’s “everybodies” then this book may not offer you too much in the way things you didn’t know, but I guarantee you’ll enjoy the ride and the chance to reminisce on a few pop-cultural favourites as well meeting some new mechanical faces. If you’re a member of that hard-to-compute group who don’t love robots, well realistically I guess you’d be unlikely to pick up the book in the first place. But if you do take the plunge you’ll find a great introduction to why robots matter as well as to the important understanding that a “takeover” need not always be a negative thing…

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Book Review: The Stories of Ibis by Hiroshi Yamamoto

Robo Reads

Title: The Stories of Ibis
Author: Hiroshi Yamamoto
Translator: Takami Nieda
Published: (Kindle Edition) 2011

Quotation: Why were there so many stories about robots and humans fighting? Did they only exist because that was how mankind had always lived? Did we simply see ourselves in these humanoid machines?

The Stories of Ibis presents a sequence of five short stories and two slightly longer ones, each exploring human relationships with artificial intelligence, or with other humans in a technologically-enabled world. Hugely diverse in setting, the subjects include the following: a group of bulletin-board users collaboratively imagining the adventures of a Star Trek-like fictional space crew (“The Universe on my Hands”); a tale of told by artificially intelligent space station on the edge of a black hole that provides a final stop-off for the adventurous and the suicidal (“Black Hole Diver”); there’s even a bubblegum anime-inspired world populated by powered up AI school-kid fighters (”A World Where Justice is Just”). Each tale stands alone, but scaffolded by an introduction and series of intermissions in which characters reflect on the story they have just heard, the stories combine to offer an impressively original exploration of the possibilities and perils of humans creating artificial life.

Kindle Edition cover

Kindle Edition cover

The creation of autonomous robots and the consequences of this for humanity as a species is a topic to which sci-fiction returns time and again. Yet Yamamato’s work never feels stale precisely because of the extent to which it recognises this fact. Artificial intelligences like the titular Ibis – the female AI who narrates each of these wide-ranging tales, rather like a robo-Scheherazade – are not simply the product of technical advancements, they are also born from stories and fictions that first imagined them. More concerned with language and psychology than engineering, this collection acknowledges the creative power of story telling, particularly those yarns spun about robots…

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Book Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

Title: Armada
Author: Ernest Cline
First Published: 2015

So what do you once you’ve turned the final page of a book you really loved? If you’re anything like me the answer might be:

  1. Feel a little sad that such a wonderful reading experience has come to an end.
  2. Start recommending said book to everyone you know.
  3. Find out if the author has published anything else and if so, buy it.

So you can imagine my glee when I discovered that, conveniently, I had finished Ernest Clines’ superb first novel, Ready Player One, just 3 days before his second book, Armada, was due to be published. Talk about perfect timing! Ready Player One may have presented a dystopian vision of the not-too-distant future but as far as reading experiences go, it was geek nirvana, laden as it was with so many contextually-justified references to the games, technology and pop-culture of the 1980s and 90s. Just like that novel’s protagonist, Wade, I’d been reluctant to logout of the enjoyably escapist virtual world laid out before me. But with Armada touted as offering a similarly pop-culture savvy experience to its predecessor it sounded like I wouldn’t be logged out for long. While Cline’s debut imagined the possibilities and the Pitfalls (Pitfall! Get it?) of a MMORPG style online world, Armada looks to the skies, and beyond: it’s an alien invasion narrative that promised to draw on every space shoot-em-up you’ve ever played and to offer a different context for all the sci-fi classic movies with which I grew up.

That all sounded so promising, and so much fun. You should never judge a book by it cover, of course, but it looked oh so promising too: what a great jacket design!

Armada book cover

Armada book cover

But…. while I can’t deny it was fun, overall, I have to admit I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so disappointed by a novel. I really wanted to like Armada but, though it does have some good moments, compared to the genius of Ready Player One, it just felt flat, forced and predictable. Son, I am disappoint.

Spoiler Alert!

Spoiler Alert!

What follows is a bit more on the novels’s themes as well as what I liked and the somewhat longer list of what I didn’t like about Armada. This is the kind of book that it’s hard to discuss without mentioning some key plot points so Rodimus is here to warn you that there may be one or two spoilers ahead.

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Chiptune Tuesday: Starscream / Infinity Shred

Yes, it’s that time of the week again when things get bleepy and bloopy! But here’s a band that eschew the retro stylings of most chiptune artists. Rather than looking back to the 80s and early gaming technology that gave birth to their 8-bit instruments, Starscream/Infinity Shred have their sights set firmly on the future and on the infinite possibilities of space.

Starscream / Infinity Shred band logo

Starscream / Infinity Shred band logo

But first up, some disambiguation since this is a band who’ve had some identity issues. Starscream were founded in 2007, initially a two-piece chiptune outfit, comprising Damon Hardjowirogo and George Stroud, they were later joined by guitarist Nathan Ritholz. The band played and recorded under their Seeker-sational moniker until 2012 when they changed their name to Infinity Shred. The reason for the renaming wasn’t, as you might expect, a lawsuit from Hasbro, but actually legal pressures from another band, the Philadelphian rockers Starskream. The name change also signaled an evolution in the band’s sound, maintaining their signature downbeat science-fiction themes but beginning to move away from purely 8-bit/chip music to explore wider electronic soundscapes. They now describe themselves as Electronic / Rock / Post-Rock rather than  chiptune per se. Although I strongly encourage you to check out their whole back catalogue, I’m mostly going to talk about the band as Starscream not just because we find it hard to pass up a good Transformers reference here on AddAltMode (although we do), but primarily due to the fact that I’ll be focusing my attention on my favourite of their albums, which dates from the Starscream era, 2011’s Future, Towards the Edge of Forever.

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