5 stars
A poignant masterpiece of interactive storytelling

Finches are known for their short lifespans, and so are the Finches, the troubled family whose story is at the heart of What Remains of Edith Finch.

You play as the titular Edith Finch, a young woman visiting the family’s haphazardly built home on Orcas Island, which was abandoned years ago. Each sealed room holds the story of a family member’s demise—and you want to know all the stories.

As you experience these individual vignettes, your perspective often changes to that of the family member in question. Perspective should not be confused with control: the game inexorably pulls you towards each character’s final destination.

Barbara’s room, one of the many you explore as part of experiencing the stories of the Finch family. (Credit: Giant Sparrow. Fair use.)

In its wistful, surreal style, Edith Finch is reminiscent of a Tim Burton movie like Big Fish; in its portrayal of a beautifully dysfunctional family, it calls to mind the works of Wes Anderson. But the game never feels derivative; it feels inspired.

Like a movie, it is very much on rails—you may very occasionally wander around for a few minutes wondering how to advance the story, but you’re unlikely to need a walkthrough, and there are no meaningful choices for you to make. That never feels limiting: like Edith, you just want to find out what happened.

There’s so much more to praise here: art direction that reaches soaring heights during some chapters (Lewis’ stands out); excellent voice acting especially by Valerie Lohman (Edith); music that will give you chills; an ending that holds nothing back.

I played the game on Linux using Proton without issues. Steam claims that I played it for 3 hours. The Finches may be short-lived, but Edith Finch will remain with me for much longer than that.

2 stars
Suspend your disbelief before you join this manhunt

Nina Guerrera (whose name means “warrior girl”) escaped a serial killer’s clutches when she was a sixteen-year-old girl; now she’s an FBI agent hunting predators. Due to a name change after her emancipation from her abusive foster parents, Nina’s would-be murderer was unable to locate her again. Nina was “the one that got away”.

A viral video that shows Nina fighting off a rapist comes to the killer’s attention, and he sets out to finish what he started. But hunting Nina is not enough. The viral video gave Nina the attention he feels he deserves. Through a series of murders, he provokes the FBI into a public manhunt. Soon, he is “The Cipher”, a murderer who leaves behind cryptograms, much like the infamous Zodiac Killer.

The Cipher is a an FBI procedural by Isabella Maldonado, a retired police captain turned crime writer. To make it a story of our times, Maldonado has her killer use social media to turn his crimes into a spectacle. The FBI and the social media sites collaborate to keep the killer online, in hopes of tracking him down.

What if Zodiac Killer, but on Facebook?

This leads to wildly implausible plot developments, where “The Cipher” maintains a public leaderboard on his Facebook page, ranking the amateur investigators around the country who try to break his (often very simple) codes. Similarly, he is permitted to repeatedly post videos of horrific crimes to an audience of millions.

If you can believe that, you will probably not have an issue with the book’s more conventional tropes, such as the idea that an FBI agent would be allowed to lead an investigation while being very publicly threatened with rape and murder by its target, who previously raped and almost killed her.

Maldonado moves the plot forward at a steady clip, and The Cipher is certainly an easy read—I read most of the book on a transcontinental flight, and downloaded it for free through Amazon’s “First Reads” program. Maldonado deserves credit for writing in a very accessible manner, e.g., about investigatory procedures; she also sometime subtly repeats important plot points to help the reader along.

These are the kinds of writing techniques that make this book a page-turner. The positive reviews the book has received suggest that many readers found it thrilling. Maldonado has already written one additional novel featuring Guerrera, and there are plans for a Netflix adaptation of The Cipher.

For me, the many plausibility issues make it difficult to recommend the book, in spite of a likable heroine.

3 stars
An alien encounter that only works on the small scale

A spider-like extraterrestrial emerges from a spaceship parked in front of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, enters the museum, and requests to speak with a paleontologist. It’s a great opening for Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God, a story mostly told in the first person from the point of view of said paleontologist, a man with the ominously biblical name Thomas Jericho.

The alien, who is named Hollus, reveals quickly that their species, the Forhilnor, believes the existence of God to be a scientific fact. Hollus wants to learn more about extinction events in Earth’s history.

Mild spoilers (click to reveal)

The Forhilnor have found evidence that mass extinction events have occurred at approximately the same time on multiple planets now inhabited by intelligent life—apparently including the extinction events in Earth’s history. In addition, they believe that the evidence for a universe fine-tuned to support life cannot be explained except by an intelligent designer.

Thomas Jericho is a staunch atheist, but Hollus is not religious in the conventional sense. The two scientists become friends as they study the fossil record of Earth and other planets. Will Doubting Thomas come around to see the evidence of the designer? And what are two American anti-abortion terrorists planning to do in Toronto?

Like Saint Thomas (depicted in this painting by Caravaggio), Tom Jericho demands strong evidence before accepting extraordinary claims.

Intelligence by Design

In exploring the evidence for God, Sawyer stacks the deck in favor of a designed universe. In addition to made-up discoveries by the extraterrestrials, he revisits creationist canards like the idea of irreducible complexity, of “missing links” in the fossil record, and of lack of evidence for speciation.

The book was published in 2000, and as Sawyer has stated, he was influenced by neo-creationist literature such as Michael Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box”. This was before Kitzmiller v. Dover, a key lawsuit in 2005 which set back the so-called Wedge Strategy to use the pseudoscience of “intelligent design” as a backdoor to introduce creationism into schools.

But even in 2000, plenty of scientists and skeptics had extensively debunked the arguments Sawyer has his characters regurgitate (see, for example, the talk.origins FAQs). It’s one thing to invent evidence for an intelligent designer that serves the story; it’s another to rely on pseudoscience. In Calculating God, Sawyer does both.

The Verdict

In spite of this, I found the book more engaging than The Terminal Experiment (review), and less dated. Parts of Calculating God feel like a theater play, a big story told on the small stage of a Canadian museum, with charming characters and a sense of humor and self-awareness.

Hollus, the extraterrestrial visitor, is very memorable: truly alien in appearance but, at the same time, witty and relatable. Their human counterpart, Tom Jericho, comes to life in small details such as his political disagreements with the museum’s administration. The friendship between Jericho and Hollus is believable and carries much of the book forward.

Ultimately, however, Calculating God takes itself too seriously. In the last third of the book, increasingly implausible events lead towards an ending that is only a poor imitation of works that have surely inspired it, such as Carl Sagan’s Contact and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.