Showing posts with label Blogging X. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Blogging X. Show all posts

Monday, July 30, 2012

Fanzines, Blogs, and Circuses

I just received the copy of Alarums & Excursions #236 that I won in the recent auction of some of Gary Gygax's personal game collection.  This issue contains a 'zine from Gary discussing a letter he had written to A&E for their second issue many years in the past.  It's an interesting letter to read for a couple of reasons, but I'll save that discussion for a later post. 

In reading through this issue of A&E to find Gary's letter, I have been having a great time reading the individual 'zines by the various contributors. Though it was alarming to read references to "Christian" Pramas being attacked.  I wonder how he was attacked and was pleasantly surprised to see that a certain Green Ronin and I share a first name...if that is the same C. Pramas.  What struck me strongest about these 'zines were the comments referencing earlier entries by contributors.  Most of the new 'zines featured a section discussing points of agreement/disagreement (often about Alignment in this issue) at the end of a contribution that might have been regarding a completely different topic.   Let me give you an example, purely for illustrative purposes.

In a 'zine by Spike Y. Jones which contains 101 Uses for a Wet Blanket and a review of Shattered Dreams, Spike includes the following:
NICOLE LINDROOS FREIN: Re How Loud And Crowded The White Wolf Party At GenCon Was: But you can remember when WW's party was only loud and crowded because it was being held in a hotel room instead of a ballroom.
I chose this comment at random for demonstrative purposes.  These comments are the conversational part of the 'zine and one of the joys of A&E is reading them.  In many ways they seem a bit like a good blog's comments section.  With one major difference.

As I mentioned before, these are all within other 'zines.  Rather than being like comments sections, they are more akin to post-scripts on a blog with hyperlinks to other blogs.
When I started this blog in March of 2004 (it was called Cinerati in those days), the blogosphere was a pretty young place.  And in some ways it behaved more like the 'zines of A&E than the internet does today.  Certainly, there are great places for rpg conversations on the internet (, Kobold Quarterly, the Paizo and Wizards forums, Grognardia), but they often seem more isolated from each other than the early blogs and A&E.  Earlier blogs seemed to be in conversation with each other more so in the past than today, and that is something that I miss.  I fondly remember writing posts in response to other posts and linking them in my blog.  I also remember joining a couple of opt in social media-esque services that would track your blog and categorize it so that you could see other blogs in your "ecosystem."  It was this kind of activity that led me to meeting several very interesting people in the Los Angeles area.  There was a kind of fanzine communal quality to the blogosphere.  Now there seems to be more of a "major network" feel to the whole endeavor.  I am happy with the number of people who read my blog, and very grateful for those few who comment, but I miss the blog to blog interchange of the earlier days.  They were more community and 'zinish.  In writing my own blog posts now, I'll often delete or postpone something I've written because it has just been touched upon by Grognardia or another blog I follow because I don't want to be seen as a copy cat.

It seems that we are a victim of our own success, by which I mean gamers as a creative force who are able to create so many blogs worth reading that some have become brands.  But I lament the iO9-ing of the internet, though I like iO9. 

There was a time, not too long ago, when people participated in "circuses" or memes like "get your geek on" (which was very recent) with some regularity.  I understand that there are too many blogs to return to them being a small tight knit community akin to 'zines, but I would like to see more circuses about RPG subjects and more "get your geek on" blog marathons.

Let's get together and do this.  And I'm no longer going to let seeing that one of my favorite blogs has blogged about something I've just been thinking about dissuade me from blogging about the very same thing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

[Blogging Northwest Smith] -- Shambleau (A Reprise)

Almost two years ago, Cinerati featured a post discussing the differences between Sword and Sorcery tales and stories of Planetary Romance. According to the post, a couple of the key differences were the moral clarity of Planetary Romance tales and the inclusion of "Weird Supernatural" elements in Sword and Sorcery tales. In response to the post, Blue Tyson, posited that I had left a "Northwest Smith" sized hole in my argument. The implication being that these tales contained "Weird Supernatural" while falling squarely into the Planetary Romance genre.

At the time I had only read Catherine Lucille Moore's Jirel of Joiry tales, and not her Northwest Smith stories. Blue Tyson's comment deeply intrigued me, and I decided to read C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith stories and to do one blog entry per story as I read them. For the exercise, I used Paizo Publishing's excellent Planet Stories edition of Northwest of Earth, which contains the complete stories of Northwest Smith (including "Nymph of Darkness" a collaboration with Forrest J Ackerman and "Quest for the Starstone" a collaboration with Henry Kuttner), as my reference during the discussion.

Eventually, life caught up with my ambitious attempt -- in the form of twin daughters, graduate school, and work related stresses -- and I was unable to complete the experiment.

I think of it as one of my failings as a blogger. I think of it as my biggest failure, just above not being able to continue my Geekerati podcast with Bill Cunningham and Shawna Benson -- a podcast that I still think is among the best done. Just skip the last couple of episodes, which were recorded as the podcast was in its twilight.

Now that it is summer, and Gen Con approaches rapidly, I would like to re-ignite my series. To that end, I will be re-posting the earlier blog posts for the next few days, after which I will complete my Northwest Smith journey. If you want to skip ahead, you can read the originals by going to the Blogging SF/F page, but I'd rather you stuck around for the ride and commented on the new pages.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Northwest Smith, he is often discussed as the fictional character who is the inspiration for George Lucas' character Han Solo. Any need to point out similarities between Northwest Smith and Indiana Jones seems unnecessary, as the names themselves speak volumes about that connection. According to John Clute's Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Through Smith, CLM helped revamp the formulae of both space opera and heroic fantasy. Smith's introspection and fallibility give him a more human dimension than his predecessors in heroic fantasy, and the depiction of his sexual vulnerability represented a psychological maturity uncommon in the field."

I think it bears mentioning that Stephan Dziemianowicz, who wrote the entry in the Encyclopedia, makes no mention of Planetary Romance in the Northwest Smith section and focuses on Smith's importance in space opera and heroic fantasy. I mentioned in the prior post that Planetary Romance was a sub-genre of heroic fantasy, but then again so is a great deal of fiction that no one would ever imagine being classified as Planetary Romance.

If "Shambleau" is any indication of the direction that future Northwest Smith tales will wander, Moore's tales of Smith belong firmly in the genre of space opera and completely outside the bounds of Planetary Romance. Though the Smith tales' inclusion of imagery associated with "Weird Fiction" marks them as stories that extend the boundaries of the traditional space opera tale.

In support of the Smith stories falling into the sub-genre of space opera -- a genre that some argue includes the Planet Stories tales of Leigh Brackett, though I believe that classification lacks specificity and makes space opera too broad a category -- I looked to David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's The Space Opera Renaissance for a working definition of space opera. They offer two early definitions of the genre. These early definitions are most useful given the publication dates of the Smith tales, newer definitions bring to mind epic tales like Iain Bank's "Culture" stories or Asimov's "Foundation" due to the expansion of the use of the term space opera.

According to Hartwell and Cramer, the Fancyclopedia II had the following definition:
Space Opera ([coined by Wilson] Tucker) A hack science-fiction story, a dressed-up Western; so called by analogy with "horse opera" for Western bangbangshootemup movies and "soap opera" for radio and video yellowdrama.

Hartwell and Cramer are quick to point out that this definition is actually a watered-down version of what Tucker actually said in his fanzine, which wasn't to actually equate Westerns and Space Opera as telling similar tales. But the connection had been made and by the early 1950s, Galaxy magazine was firm in its use of space opera as "any hackneyed SF filled with stereotypes borrowed from Westerns." The definition of what constitutes space opera has since expanded significantly since the 50s -- it has come to be so broad as to include both Planetary Romance and the "Culture" stories which is almost too broad -- but the connection between the Western and space opera seems particularly significant in the case of Northwest Smith. I would not call Moore's writing hackneyed, but "Shambleau" could easily be rewritten as a Western with only minor cosmetic changes.

"Shambleau," which was Moore's first published story, was published in 1933 during the height of the pulp era. The shelves were filled with a wide array of writing of various qualities, but it is easy to see why Moore's piece was selected for publication in the November 1933 edition of Weird Tales. The piece could also be used as a demonstration for how to mold a work of writing to suit a particular publication. It isn't hard to believe that Moore actually started this as a Western and then adapted it to better suit the tastes of Weird Tales.

"Shambleau" opens with a prefatory paragraph which sets the tone of the tale, establishes a sense of history and place, and gives readers some foreshadowing regarding the turn the tale will take. The paragraph is reminiscent of the paragraphs Robert E. Howard used to open his Conan tales. Where his paragraphs represented excerpts from the fictional Nemedian Chronicles, Moore's resemble the careful tone of a campfire tale. The paragraph is different in tone from Howard's, but serves much the same purpose.

It begins:
MAN HAS CONQUERED Space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which come echoes of half-mythical names -- Atlantis, Mu -- somewhere back of history's first beginnings there must have been an age when mankind, like us today, built cities of steel to house its star-roving ships and knew the names of the planets in their own native tongues--

One might believe after reading this paragraph -- especially since the place names for Mars and Venus used later in the story are those used in this paragraph -- that he or she is about to read about Space travel in this time before time. This is not the case. References to "New York roast beef" and a "Chino-Aryan war" leave any speculation that this tale takes place in a forgotten time behind. No...this tale takes place in our future, after mankind has once again conquered Space. The sense of the mythical is used in order to make the twist of the story plausible and ensures that the twist falls well within a reader's suspension of disbelief.

We know that our tale take place at some time during mankind's Space conquering future, but what kind of future is it and what kind of man is our protagonist? Apparently, the Mars of the future is a lot like Virginia City.

"Shambleau! Ha...Shambleau!" The wild hysteria of the mob rocketed from wall to wall of Lakkdarol's narrow streets and the storming of heavy boots over the slag-red pavement made an ominous undertone to that swelling bay...

Northwest Smith heard it coming and stepped into the nearest doorway, laying a wary hand on his heat-gun's grip, and his colorless eyes narrowed. Strange sounds were common enough in the streets of Earth's latest colony on Mars -- a raw, red little down where anything might happen, and very often did.

Moore gets us into the action quickly. After a prefatory paragraph that sets the tone and place, she launches us straight into a dangerous situation. It's like reading the scrolling preface before a Star Wars film and then being thrust right into the action. In this case, the action of the tale is simple enough. A wild mob is shouting for the death of a woman, whether "Shambleau" is her name or the name of her people has not yet been made clear, and Northwest Smith takes it upon himself to calm the mob and save the girl. It is only after saving the girl that Northwest Smith comes to understand why the mob was after the woman in the first place -- to tell you more about the girl would be spoiling the fun, but it would also be unfair to leave out further discussion of our protagonist.

We know by his introduction, and his hand on his heat gun, that Northwest Smith is a dangerous man. We come to find out that his saving of the woman probably had little to do with chivalry, but more to do with "that chord of sympathy for the underdog that stirs in every Earthman." This chord of sympathy must stir strong in Smith, because the mob is pretty persistent and Smith -- like Han Solo after him -- isn't the kind who wants to get too involved in this kind of action. Smith's business is usually of a different sort:
Smith's errand in Lakkdarol, like most of his errands, is better not spoken of. Man lives as he must, and Smith's living was a perilous affair outside the law and ruled by the ray-gun only. It is enough to say that the shipping-port and its cargoes outbound interested him deeply just now...

Apparently, Smith is a blaggard whose day to day business is so unseemly that Moore refrains from sharing it, likely because the audience would lose sympathy with our protagonist. It is easy to see how Smith became the archetype that anti-heroes would be based upon for decades to come. He's a cautious man, who pulls for the underdog, but who participates in business best left unspoken. Sounds like Han Solo to me...or Wolverine.

"Shambleau" is a fun tale with a nice twist, a twist that is fairly obvious after the prefatory paragraph. One can see illustrations of "Shambleau" by Barbarella creator Jean-Claude Forest at this fairly NSFW link if you don't want to wait to find out the surprise. I recommend waiting. Read Moore's prose first. Moore incorporates classic mythology into the Science Fiction narrative smoothly and dramatically. Her writing is addictive and she manages to take a classic monster and turn it into something really weird.

Monday, November 09, 2009

[Blogging Hammer's Slammers] -- "Under the Hammer"

I can remember the first time I saw David Drake's name in print, it was in the Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn collection of stories in the Thieves' World shared universe fiction series. I enjoyed his story, Goddess, but didn't read anything else by Drake for quite some time. In fact, it was about a decade later when I read his foreword -- and story -- in Baen's Cormac Mac Art volume in the excellent Robert E. Howard series they put together in the 1990s. It would be a few more years before I started reading Drake's excellent Lord of the Isles series, a rich fantasy series that wanders away from the typical medieval European mythological base and toward Sumerian myths for inspiration.

I have always found Drake's writing engaging, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that he had been friends with two figures who loom large in Fantasy fiction -- Manly Wade Wellman and Karl Edward Wagner. Even though I was a fan of Drake's Fantasy writing, I hadn't read any of his Science Fiction. Most of Drake's SF falls into a sub-genre that I don't often find myself wandering into, namely Military SF. I have no moral objections to Military SF stories. I have read Dorsai, Forever War, Starship Troopers, and Old Man's War, but I haven't wandered far from those literary entries into the genre.

Based on a conversation I had with a friend last week -- a portion of which was dedicated to the aesthetic failings of the covers decorating the majority of Baen's book line -- combined with my recent foray into the Science Fiction of the 1930s and the October Baen release of The Complete Hammer's Slammers vol. 1, I have decided to begin an exploration of Military SF starting with David Drake's classic "Hammer's Slammers" series of stories.

Like Haldeman's Forever War, Drake's "Hammer's Slammers" series of stories are (at least partially) informed by the author's own military experience. Both Haldeman and Drake spent time in Vietnam. The "Slammers" stories share many qualities with the Military SF that has preceding and succeeded them, but they also have some distinct and unique qualities that set them apart.

Case in point, for this post, is "Under the Hammer." This story was the second "Slammers" story that Drake wrote after returning from Vietnam, and it was the second story rejected by Fredrick Pohl for publication. Pohl did not see a need for a third author writing "essentially the same kind of fiction" he was receiving from Pournelle and Haldeman -- a statement that seems bizarre to this particular modern reader. The story was eventually published in the October 1974 issue of Galaxy under the editorship of Jim Baen. According to Drake, Baen didn't really like the story either, but it was better written grammatically than the majority of Galaxy submissions. Pretty humble beginnings for what has become a major entry in a genre sub-category.

"Under the Hammer," gives us a glimpse into new recruit Rob Jenne's first day on the job with the "Hammer's Slammers" mercenary outfit. The story is a stark presentation of on the job training in the middle of a conflict with guerrilla forces on an agricultural planet, a planet so far from civilization that most "modern" means of transportation and communication are completely lacking. It is an environment where the soldiers of "Hammer's Slammers" far outgun the guerrilla's they are fighting, but still find themselves mired in a struggle where victory is less than guaranteed. It's pretty clear that the setting is Vietnam as SF outer rim world, tunnel rats and all.

The story is quite short, but within its pages Drake manages to do a couple of groundbreaking things within the genre. First, he immediately separates himself from Heinlein and Haldeman by not providing a representation of Basic Training. We are reading the story of a recruit showing up "on world" who is on his way to be trained, any training Jenne receives in the story will be provided only as much as it will help him survive the next 20 or so pages. The next difference between Drake's story and others is the almost complete lack of discussion for the "why" of the conflict on the planet. The readers are placed into the circumstances in media res without much context discussing why the "Slammers" have been hired to fight the guerrillas. There is some brief discussion why the "Slammers" might be hired in general, but few specifics about the current engagement. The stress in the story is on the characters and their immediate circumstances, and not on any global (galaxy-wide?) political/ideological struggles. The men presented are real men, who behave realistically, and who aren't doing anything particularly noble or ignoble.

This last point is made particularly poignantly early in the story. One of the first characters Jenne encounters is a priest of The Way who questions Jenne about his enlistment and how the military life may/may not conflict with a peaceful religion. For a story that on the surface lacks any philosophic commentary, the priest's initial comments and his two layered involvement with the "Slammers" made this story stand out. The priest's two layered involvement with the "Slammers" might seem a little heavy handed on the "melodrama tear-jerk inducement index," but it plays a very necessary role for the proper framing of the story.

This is a tightly written story that's only weakness is the thinness of the sfnal veneer. My hope is that as the stories play out, they will be able to keep the strong writing style while adding more SF elements.