Showing posts with label SF. Show all posts
Showing posts with label SF. Show all posts

Friday, April 22, 2016

ID4 Resurgence: I See Your H.G. Wells Clone and Raise You FOOTFALL and ROBOTECH

Independence Day is probably my favorite adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic tale War of the Worlds. It captures the desperation of defending a world against an overwhelming force and does a nice job of updating "microbes" into a computer virus in a way that requires no small amount of suspension of disbelief, but somehow still seems appropriate. One of the best things about the film was that it knew what it was and didn't care to be anything more. It was just a good time bundled into a nice 2 hours and 25 minutes.

It looks like the sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, is happy to follow the formula of its predecessor. Just as ID4 borrowed from one of the all-time classic SF stories, arguable THE STORY that established the Invasion narrative plotline that every invasion movie has followed, the new movie looks like it is inspired by a host of classics as well. From the Macross inspired reverse engineering of alien technology in preparation of invasion, to the larger than life "war ending" impact crater of Footfall, this trailer has a little bit of everything.

I cannot wait for this to come out!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Perils of Public Statements and Why Natasha Pulley is the Bravest SF/F Fan I've Ever Read

The Guardian is one of the few newspapers that truly takes Science Fiction and Fantasy literature seriously on a regular basis. They frequently have reviews of new releases, cover the latest kerfuffle in fandom, and run a number of opinion columns discussing the genres. As a fan, it's nice to find a place in the mainstream media where I can see one of my obsessions treated without a hint of irony.

This isn't to say that The Guardian doesn't wander into Clickbaitlandia from time to time. I took one of their regular writers, Damien Walter, to task for asking if we were "in a post-Sci Fi era." Damien was kind enough to take my discussion seriously, which made for one of my own personal blogging highlights. One does not often imagine that people who have deadlines to meet, and who are halfway across the globe, have time to respond to one's little island of ideas.

About a week or so ago, Damien wrote a piece lamenting the tyranny of mega-novel series in epic fantasy fiction. As a fan of the Fantasy genre, who is tired of being expected to read 10,000 pages over the span of 20 years in order to get a complete tale told within an author's mythopoeic construction, I was glad to see someone I respect shared my views. I miss the compact and deep shorter novels of days past. Long gone are the days of Elric of Melnibone, we now live in the era of The Wheel of Time. I think that today's readers are poorer for that experience, but there are those who disagree with Damien's view. Among them is an aspiring author named Natasha Pulley.

Natasha Pulley argues in her own piece at The Guardian that, "High fantasy...hinges on world-building. When there really is a whole world to build, and not just a historical period or a particular country, world-building does not take a few paragraphs in a short story; it takes chapters. Add to that the anvil on which creative writing schools hammer their students now, show don't tell, and these details take even longer to convey." Her argument is that the modern genre of Epic Fantasy requires the massive amounts of elaboration that so many modern Fantasy novels indulge in as a condition of additig literary value and verisimilitude. In Pulley's analysis, many of the best Fantasy stories are very simple tales at there core and it is the addition of world-building and subtle portrayals of character interaction that make these stories truly worthwhile.

There is more to her argument, to be sure and you should read her piece in its entirety, but it is one that I could not disagree with more. I think that the kind of "subtlety" of interpersonal interactions that makes up much of the verbiage of many a modern tale are flaws in writing and not virtues.

Before I elaborate on my reasons, I want to take a moment to repeat something I wrote in the headline of this post. Natasha Pulley may be the bravest SF/F fan I've ever read. I write this because she has written column that takes up a somewhat controversial opinion during a time when fandom won't hesitate to demonstrate to you exactly how wrong you are, and often not in the nicest of terms. The reason I am writing this post is less because I disagree with Pulley and think she is in need of "correction," rather it's because of the ire she raised among my Facebook friends. I have an odd collection of "friends" on Facebook who run the gamut from "not at all interested in SF/F" to editors in the field, and many of them were outraged by Pulley's piece. One of the nicer critiques was that it seemed that The Guardian had recently become a cesspool of nothing but click bait articles.

I, myself, even tweeted out a brief "you clearly haven't read x..." tweet in response to Pulley's article. I wasn't insulting in tone or language, but I think I was a bit dismissive. Pulley's response was perfect, "I'll add that to my reading list." Not only is she brave, but she clearly cast a Stoneskin spell upon herself after writing the piece. The rage on my feed, and Pulley's own polite response to my snark, are why I'm writing this post.

I'll begin my critique of Pulley's piece by using a trick she uses in her own article. In order to demonstrate how simple, almost simplistic, Epic Fantasy tales can be, she reduces a couple to their barest skeleton. Her choices are Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. I'll go a step more modern, into a series that is "windier" (pun totally intended) than Rowling at her most "we are camping for 300 pages," and pick Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind.

Name of the Wind  : Homeless youth goes to college and acquires student loan debt.

Spoiler alert. That's pretty much all that happens in that book and it takes a long time to get there. Readers are led through sidebar after sidebar of other short stories along the way, but that's the crux of the book. Oh...and it's very enjoyable because it's well written. A part of how well it is written is in the little short stories that take place throughout the book. In fact, the sidebars contain far more world-building than the wordy narrative. Some of the best world-building in Rothfuss' book are the product of "off-hand" comments made by characters in the book. By off-hand, I mean off-hand to the characters, they are very intentional by the author.

This brings me to my main point. While Pulley is correct in stating that the on page development of deep friendships or interactions between characters can be page consuming, she is wrong about world-building. The problem, and blessing, of modern Fantasy is that it gives us entire conversations. This makes for very believable characters, but neither moves the story along nor gives the reader a sense of the world.

The best world-building is seen in shorter fiction, not in longer. It is, as Pulley rightfully acknowledges, extremely difficult to write short fiction let alone short Fantasy fiction. That's one of the reasons, much to Susan Palwick's disappointment I imagine, that I have not published any fiction to date. It's hard to be creative. But as difficult as short fiction is to write, it is where the best writing occurs.

Robert E Howard's first Conan tale, which I examined at this blog some time ago, is rich with world-building. Sometimes Howard achieves world-building through heuristic shortcuts where certain nations are "inspired" by our own history. He's not alone in this though as Robert Jordan borrowed from Dune, King Arthur, Tolkien, and a host of other sources for his Wheel of Time series. One would imagine that with all of the world-building shortcuts Jordan used, he wouldn't need so many books to tell his tale.

Fritz Lieber's classic tales of Nehwon are all short fiction, usually novellas, that give a strong sense of place in a very small number of words.

Michael Moorcock's Elric Saga is brilliant for its world-building and yet the world gets no "bigger" the more books you read. The world is real from moment one, even if you don't get the heuristic shortcuts Moorcock is using.

Garth Nix's tales of Hereward and Mr. Fitz take place in a fully imagined environment and never have they wandered into even the novel in length.

H.P. Lovecraft build complex mythologies within the short form.

C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith is one of the most realized characters in all of fiction, and his tales are a collection of shorter stories.

Barsoom is fully realized in "Under the Moons of Mars." Yes, that's a novel, but it isn't a massive mega-novel series. Even as a series, the full of Barsoom lore pales before a single volume of Rothfuss in mass.

Averoigne is as real a place as any other, but Clark Ashton Smith did not need 12 volumes to immerse us there.

The depth of a setting can be shared with arcane and subtle references that inspire the imagination. One need not have a fully articulated mythology akin to the Silmarillion fully referenced within a tale to give that tale depth. I'm not saying that having a fully written Silmarillion isn't helpful to an author who wants to be able to share subtle references with readers, it probably is. Instead, I'm saying that all readers need are subtle references to fill in the blanks. Gary Gygax's Appendix N is filled with tales of wonder far shorter, and more inspirational, than much of what is published today.

Leave gaps for the readers to fill. Let our imaginations live in the spaces between.

It is a tragedy that Fantasy has wandered too often away from praise of shorter fiction, short stories, novels, and novellas. They are still printed, but they lack the commercial success of their mega-tyrants. Given how much easier it is to translate a shorter tale to other media, other fandoms are ill-served by this tyranny.

I've shared only a few of my favorite shorter tales of Fantasy. What are some of yours?

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

INTERSTELLAR -- Will Most Recent Trailer Set Off SF vs. Skiffy Debate?

I'm a big fan of both SF and Skiffy, but truly SFnal films and TV are a rarity. This trailer for INTERSTELLAR seems like an attempt to prove that character focused SF narratives can be as compelling - if not more so - than your typical blockbuster.

I have to say that this looks to be one of the best SF films in a long time. I'm also considering making a brief Savage Worlds campaign based on the film if it lives up to expectations.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

THE EYE OF ARGON - or - When A Community Mocks Its Own

I've long been a fan of science fiction and fantasy, and I've long been a person who is pretentiously opposed to pretense. In a way, I'm like an angry Polyanna who aggressively argues against those who mock the "juvenile" or "popular" things in SF/F. I love "skiffy" and have experienced no greater sense of wonder than reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' writings of John Carter. That's right. I believe that ERB's tales of Barsoom are as imaginative - nay more so - than Iain Bank's Culture novels, and I love those too. I'm the fan who loves both the Dragonlance stories and Malazan Book of the Fallen. I love the genre at its most literary, at its most imaginative, and when it falls into the "written by an overenthusiastic fan" territory.

I'm so positive in my passion about genre fiction and geek culture that I wrote an approving review of I, FRANKENSTEIN and have been reminded by my editor at Topless Robot that I need to bare the fangs every now and then because I am usually so enthusiastic.

While it's not for my upcoming Topless Robot article, I did find something that really aggravates me. It's how cruel SFF professionals and fandom can be. There are plenty of examples I could pull out of a hat, often dealing with the treatment of female fans as being "fake geek girls." As the father of twin girls who love Pirates, Pokemon, Paladins, and Princesses, I find that whole "controversy" infuriating. That's why I'm not going to write about that topic. It would be very difficult for me to avoid expletives on what has been consistently a G-rated or PG-rated blog.

Instead, I want to focus on how professionals and fandom have treated on particular enthusiast of Sword and Sorcery fiction, Jim Theis the author of THE EYE OF ARGON.

I've been doing nightly out loud readings of THE EYE OF ARGON. I do one chapter, or half chapter as the book has half-chapters as well, per night. I thought it would be fun to do. I heard that the SF/F community had regular readings of this poorly written work of fiction that were the book equivalent of MST3K...and it had been mentioned by the MST3K I thought it would be fun to do my own midnight readings with my wife.

My takeaway from the experience is that the SF/F community are cruel, judgmental, and full of themselves. I also came to believe that I was part of the problem. By participating in my own personal midnight reading, I was being an SF/F bully.

My sister, Krista aka  Luna McDunerson, bought me a the Wildside Press version of the book, which has a long introduction by Lee Weinstein that discusses the search and discovery of the real Jim Theis. It mentions an interview on a local (Los Angeles) radio show/podcast called Hour 25 where Jim supposedly stated, "that he was hurt that his story was being mocked and said he would never write anything again."

I'll be honest with you. I fluctuate in what to think. Either the whole thing is a hoax, or SF/F authors and fandom are cruel. Scratch that. Even if the whole thing is an elaborate hoax with false scholarship creating a plausible back story of a 16 year old writing the story for OSFAN, SF/F authors and fandom are still cruel. It doesn't matter whether Jim Theis is a real person or a fictional person, what matters is that the community has spent over 30 years mocking him. I became one of those people and it makes me feel terrible. The anger I feel toward myself more than outweighs the joy from any of the small chuckles I experienced during my reading of the work.

The thing is, I think that Jim Theis was a real person and that he did write THE EYE OF ARGON. While the Eaton Collection doesn't have a copy of OSFAN 10, the issue that is said to contain the original story, they do have issue 11 thanks to a generous donation by former UCLA librarian Bruce Pelz. According to the Weinstein essay in the Wildside edition, Theis remained an active fan of SF/F for most of his life. Can you imagine what it would be like to attend conventions where there was a midnight event dedicated to mocking you? It would be one thing if Theis embraced that mockery and made it his own, finding some way to leverage it into a positive thing, but that Hour 25 interview seems to imply the opposite. The mockery killed Theis' desire to become a writer. That's right, the SF/F community's mockery shattered a fan's aspirations. To me, that is the biggest crime that any professional or fan can do. No matter how "bad" a writer is at writing, they are never wrong to aspire to become a published author.

Yes THE EYE OF ARGON is poorly written, but not much more so than Lin Carter's THONGOR stories. Unlike Theis, Carter doesn't have the excuse that he was 16 when he wrote the THONGOR tales. Unlike Carter, Theis wasn't a brilliant editor. If an editor as brilliant as Carter was can write drivel and still be a vital contributor to the field as a whole, who is to say Theis may not have evolved into something more? I can tell you from experience that there are some sentences in ARGON that hint at some talent, if only Theis could set aside his Thesaurus for a moment.

When my wife was in film school, one of her classmates stated that she wanted "to be one of those writers who writes terrible movies" and wanted to know how to do that because it seemed like an easy way to make money. It was a statement filled with pretense and disdain that also lacked an understanding of why and how things are created. I don't think anyone writes with the intention of creating something terrible - baring those things that are done as parody. Instead, most writers are attempting to entertain others and to share their own personal feelings and joys. Jim Theis, like Lin Carter, clearly enjoyed his Robert E. Howard stories. Heck, he might even have enjoyed Carter's THONGOR stories. It seems that a 16 year old Thies wanted to share his love of those tales with others by creating his own version. What was his reward for exposing himself thus?

He was publicly ridiculed for over 30 years.

For a community to spend 30+ years making a game that amounts to nothing more than "Taking turns mocking one's own" is something for which I have nothing but I have disdain. I'm not saying to end the readings of THE EYE OF ARGON. There is humor to be found in the mixed metaphors and odd misuses of words that Theis clearly didn't understand. But there is also an enthusiasm to the writing, a sincerity, that should be acknowledged. Readings of THE EYE OF ARGON can be humorous and educational experiences, but they should exclude mockery for mockery's sake. Acknowledge the enthusiasm of the author. Point out how his errors are the errors that many new authors make. And remember that the writing in THE EYE OF ARGON is so "bad" that many of the early myths of its origin required that it be written by someone of respected talent.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

RIP: Iain M. Banks

I first encountered the brilliant writing of Iain M. Banks when I was an undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Reno. I was working in a computer lab and, having read Heinlein/Asimov/Farmer,  claimed to be a science fiction fan while in conversation with one of the technicians. The technician started asking me, and not in a gotcha way, my opinions on a wide range of authors - authors who had names I was completely unfamiliar with. One of these names was Iain M. Banks. From the conversations I had with the tech, Banks' writing seemed something both new and old. It combined the Space Opera grand tapestry background of Herbert or Asimov (I hadn't heard of Niven yet, but would soon) with stylistic prose that captured the imagination.

The first Banks book I read was Consider Phlebas, the first in the splendid series of "Culture" novels. The book describes a "small action" that takes place within a grand interstellar war between the Culture and a race of aliens called the Idirans. The story was - in some ways - an argument against "Death Star" moments and against "super kid" style SF. At the same time, it was deeply human and evocative of emotion. It was a book that made me think and ask for more, and Banks delivered a great deal more. I consider the Culture novels to be the best collective works in all of science fiction. There may be better individual stories, but as a body of work they are canonical and magnificent.

I read earlier today that Banks, who had been revealed his cancer earlier this year, has died. I am filled with the selfish sorrow of the fan. For now I know that the amount of new experiences that this talented writer will bring into my life has hit its termination. I can only read his final work and reread all that he wrote that has brought me joy - time and again. I cannot imagine the sorrow of his family and newlywed wife - who he asked if she would do him the honor of being his widow earlier this year - I can only know the self-centered sorrow that I feel. I never met the man, neither at a con or a signing, but his work has affected me deeply. It will be shared with my children. I would like to thank him for the gift he gave me.

In memoriam of Banks, I'd like to do two things. First, I'd like to share an excerpt from the poem The Wasteland from which the novel Consider Phlebas acquired its title. Then I'd like to present a quote from the book itself.


Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
                          A current under sea 315
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                          Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, 320
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

One of the reasons Banks impressed me as a writer was his ability to capture human struggle in a post-scarcity society. He had a much better grasp on such things than most writers. His economics were not as confused as Star Trek's, which as much as I love the show meander from post-scarcity to smuggling/black market. He understood one of the drives that makes us human. He sums up nicely the human spirit in post-scarcity societies with the following:

The only desire the Culture could not satisfy from within itself was one common to both the descendants of its original human stock and the machines they had (at however great remove) brought into being: the urge not to feel useless. The Culture's sole justification for the relatively unworried, hedonistic life its population enjoyed was its good works; the secular evangelism of the Contact Section, not simply finding, cataloguing, investigating and analyzing other, less advanced civilizations but - where circumstances appeared to Contact to justify so doing - actually interfering (overtly or covertly) in the historical processes of those other cultures.
The human spirit is inherently anti-Prime Directive, as Kirk and crew so often demonstrate, because we wish to matter. We want to make things better. This is a wonderful impulse, it can lead us to beautiful acts or base ones, but it is a quintessentially human impulse.

Banks mattered.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

RIP: Ray Harryhausen (1920 - 2013)

To say that the work of Ray Harryhausen had a significant impact on my life would be an understatement.  Not only are JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD two of my favorite films, films I cannot wait to share with my twin daughters, they are also parts of some of the happiest memories of my childhood.  I remember watching these films with my mom and dad when they ran as matinee films.  I remember my parents "secretly" smuggling me in to see SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER at the Drive-In.  I hid under a sheet in the back of the Gremlin and they pretended I wasn't there. It turns out that they paid the family rate and that the subterfuge was just for my entertainment.  

The movies were undeniably magical and one of my two favorite Comic Con moments is sitting in the audience at a "Ray & Ray" panel (that's Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen) where they both talked about their life's work.  Our local science fiction/fantasy bookstore in Glendale would frequently hold Ray & Ray signings. It was one of the things that makes Glendale the perfect place to live.

Finding out that Harryhausen has passed is sad.  That sadness is lessened by the truth that Harryhausen added so much joy to the world -- joy that will long outlive me.

Thank you Mr. Harryhausen for my childhood joys, and thank you for the future joy I will be able to experience thanks to your imagination.

The Harryhausen Family formally announced the death on Facebook with the following message:

Raymond Frederick Harryhausen
Born: Los Angeles 29th June 1920
Died: London 7th May 2013.

The Harryhausen family regret to announce the death of Ray Harryhausen, Visual Effects pioneer and stop-motion model animator. He was a multi-award winner which includes a special Oscar and BAFTA. Ray’s influence on today’s film makers was enormous, with luminaries; Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, George Lucas, John Landis and the UK’s own Nick Park have cited Harryhausen as being the man whose work inspired their own creations.

Harryhausen’s fascination with animated models began when he first saw Willis O’Brien’s creations in KING KONG with his boyhood friend, the author Ray Bradbury in 1933, and he made his first foray into filmmaking in 1935 with home-movies that featured his youthful attempts at model animation. Over the period of the next 46 years, he made some of the genres best known movies – MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957), MYSTERIUOUS ISLAND (1961), ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966), THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969), three films based on the adventures of SINBAD and CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981). He is perhaps best remembered for his extraordinary animation of seven skeletons in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) which took him three months to film.

Harryhausen’s genius was in being able to bring his models alive. Whether they were prehistoric dinosaurs or mythological creatures, in Ray’s hands they were no longer puppets but became instead characters in their own right, just as important as the actors they played against and in most cases even more so.

Today The Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation, a charitable Trust set up by Ray on the 10th April 1986, is devoted to the protection of Ray’s name and body of work as well as archiving, preserving and restoring Ray’s extensive Collection.

Tributes have been heaped upon Harryhausen for his work by his peers in recent years.

“Ray has been a great inspiration to us all in special visual industry. The art of his earlier films, which most of us grew up on, inspired us so much.” “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no STAR WARS”
George Lucas.

“THE LORD OF THE RINGS is my ‘Ray Harryhausen movie’. Without his life-long love of his wondrous images and storytelling it would never have been made – not by me at least”
Peter Jackson

“In my mind he will always be the king of stop-motion animation”
Nick Park

"His legacy of course is in good hands
Because it’s carried in the DNA of so many film fans."
Randy Cook

"You know I’m always saying to the guys that I work with now on computer graphics “do it like Ray Harryhausen”
Phil Tippett

“What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before but without computers. Only with his digits.”
Terry Gilliam.

"His patience, his endurance have inspired so many of us."
Peter Jackson

"Ray, your inspiration goes with us forever."
Steven Spielberg

"I think all of us who are practioners in the arts of science fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant.
If not for Ray’s contribution to the collective dreamscape, we wouldn’t be who we are."
James Cameron

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Iain Banks Has Cancer -- Ugh!

Iain Banks is, quite simply, my favorite science fiction author. His Culture novels combine compelling SF-nal content with extraordinary writing talent. It is too soon to mourn his loss or write obituaries, but I would like to share this brief BBC report.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

All Too Rare Geekerati Podcast Update

I post surprisingly few updates about the Geekerati podcast that Shawna Benson and I do on a fairly regular basis. I think that it is time for a change on that front. Shawna and I have been doing the podcast, along with a couple of other co-hosts like Bill Cunningham, since 2007 and will be live streaming our 126th episode this evening. We average 2,400 downloads an episode with most falling between 1,000 and 5,000 depending on who we have as a guest in a given week. We have had one or two episodes with over 40,000 downloads, but those were with guests who had very large followings and who heavily promoted their appearance on our humble show.

We live stream the show on Wednesdays at 8:30pm Pacific, although this has changed over the years to match our busy lives, and episodes are available for download on the website or on iTunes immediately after the show finishes airing. We recommend listening to the show on the website and putting up with the advertisement at the beginning of the show, as this helps us recoup some of the costs of hosting the show with Blog Talk Radio. The live streaming format has certain advantages for time crushed people like Shawna and me, but it does come with the requisite risks of technical glitches. We have certainly had our share of those. If you want to hear how throttled bandwidth affects Skype audio, check out our conversation with Stephanie Thorpe about the Elfquest Anniversary.

Over the years Shawna and I have had some fantastic guests, including:
  1. Matt Forbeck (Game Designer) -- Matt's actually been our most frequent guest, with Shelly Mazzanoble coming in at second. This makes them our favorite guests.
  2. John Rogers (Leverage, The Core)
  3. James Lowder (Game Designer and Editor)
  4. Marc Bernardin (Alphas)
  5. Susan Palwick (SF Author)
  6. Tim Minear (Firefly)
  7. David Goetsch (Big Bang Theory)-- Back in 2008 even.
  8. Aaron Ginsburg (Thrilling Adventure Hour)
  9. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
This is far from an extensive list. Shawna and I are quite proud of what we've been able to do with the show. So why don't you join us tonight as we chat with Clark Perry to discuss the upcoming show DEFIANCE.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

[RPGS] C.O.P.S. -- French Cyber-Noir RPG is on My White Whale List

Years ago, I saw the cover for a French RPG entitled C.O.P.S. and ever since I have had an itch to hunt down a copy of this foreign language rpg.  It has a lot of elements that appeal to me as a gamer and as a SF literature and Noir film geek.
Image from C.O.P.S. copyright 2003 Asmodee Games

Based on the game's cover, and some of the interior artwork I have been able to track down on the internet, C.O.P.S. looks like a mash up of DISTRICT B13, ROBOCOP, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, and TRAINING DAY.  As an action film aficionado, can one really ask for much more?  Check out some of these images.

Image Copyright 2003 Asmodee Games

Image Copyright 2003 Asmodee Games

I have yet to track down and purchase a copy of the game, though the game is available on, in large part because I don't speak or read French.  That said, the game's product line has such a distinctive and evocative look that I'm tempted to do so just for the inspiration the art might bring to my gaming table.  As I wouldn't be able to understand the game system, I'd have to use Savage Worlds, Gamma World, Feng Shui, or some other system to run adventures in this setting. 

If there were ever an RPG that I'd like to see someone start a Kickstarter campaign in order to secure rights, pay for translation into English, and for release in the US, this is that game.  While I'm not sure how well the game plays, the game was designed by the French game designer Croc (Bruno Faidutti's profile of Croc is here) who has designed a couple of other games that have done well in the United States (In Nomine and Claustrophobia for example) so I think it might be possible to build some buzz for the game.

Okay internet.  Here is the challenge.  Watch the preview for District B13 below, followed by the fan video for C.O.P.S. and then tell me there shouldn't be an American Edition of this game.

District B13


Make it happen.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Best in Fantasy Fiction -- A Reading from "The Shadow War of the Night Dragons"

Many of the best works of Science Fiction and Fantasy are meant to be read aloud.  Ursula Le Guin describes the power of prose meant to be written aloud in her description of Tolkien's narrative prose in The Lord of the Rings in her essay "Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings."  The essay was published in the book Meditations on Middle-Earth: New Writing on the Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien, and like the book she is describing, the essay is a joy to read.  She describes such works as follows:

The narrative prose of such novelists is like poetry in that it wants the living voice to speak it, to find its full beauty and power, its subtle music, its rhythmic vitality.
It's a wonderful description, and it captures Tolkien's work perfectly.  There are places in The Lord of the Rings where my "silent reader mind" recoils from the page, but when the passages are given voice they come to life.

Some fiction was just meant to be read aloud...and that includes John Scalzi's Hugo Nominated masterwork The Shadow War of the Night Dragons Book One: The Dead City.  Like most works of sublime Fantasy, Scalzi's true genius is revealed by the voice of the reader -- in this case Mark of  As Mark reads the pages, the reader is given the pleasure of seeing how masterfully Scalzi combined Shakespeare's opening of Hamlet with one of the most endearing story openings of all time -- second only to Once Upon a Time in its familiarity to readers -- and wraps them in a stylistic bow of genius.

I dare you to watch this video and not be moved to tears.

Do you see what I mean?  What is striking about listening to this, as opposed to merely reading it as I have done before, is that it has affected the way that I read Patrick Rothfuss and Iain Banks.  Thanks to John Scalzi, the Culture Novels will never be the same again as they are surely sequels to Shadow War.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

[Gaming History] Star Frontiers -- A Look Back at a Classic SF RPG

When TSR released the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game in the early 1970s, they created a new mode of gaming the role playing game.  What is interesting is that they failed to rapidly follow up the success of their "fantasy" themed role playing game with a succession of game releases in other genres.  While many of the first role playing games were shallow imitations of D&D...some were even Vacuous to use Gygax's terminology, it was other companies who first entered the marketplace with non-fantasy RPGs.

It wasn't long after the publication of D&D that Ken St. Andre drafted a set of rules for a science fiction themed role playing game entitled Starfaring, and Marc Miller published Traveller in 1977.  Where Starfaring was whimsical, and is a quintessentially 70s artifact that feels a bit like John Carpenter's Dark Star the rpg, Marc Miller's Traveller set the standard for science fiction rpgs.  In fact, Traveller truly set the standard for any rpg product line that was going to compete in the rpg marketplace.  Marc Miller's creation had a large following among the Space Gamer readership, and the publication of support materials for the game led to the growth of FASA -- one of the classic old RPG companies.  Traveller's success extends to the present, and Marc Miller currently has a Kickstarter campaign that promises a new edition that harkens to the old version.

Even though Traveller established science fiction as a viable genre for role playing games, it took TSR five years after the release of Traveller before they released their SF entry into the RPG marketplace, the Star Frontiers game.  When Star Frontiers came out, there were those who tried to compare it to Traveller, but I have always felt that the comparisons were slightly off base as they represent different kinds of SF.  Traveller's rules and back story, as well as the overwhelming influence D&D had on the early RPG market, gave the game a specific feel.  Characters created in the game are typically former military who are now retired, or as James Maliszewski has pointed out a good many were former Mercenaries.  Traveller campaigns had narratives along the lines of the Firefly television show, though it would be more chronologically accurate to say that Firefly has a Traveller feel to it.  Traveller's own backstory was heavily influenced by Asimov's Foundation series with it's dying empire.  Traveller campaigns were often gritty SF adventures filled with mercenaries and retired Imperial Officers spanning the Spinward Marches in pursuit of wealth and notoriety.

The D&D influence could also be seen in many Traveller campaigns, where players essentially wandered around the galaxy as pirates raiding Imperial space ships for their loot.  This isn't to say that all Traveller campaigns were "spacey dungeon crawls," the official adventures certainly weren't, just that some people played it that way.

The science fiction background of Star Frontiers was quite different from that of Traveller.  Where Traveller took place in a galaxy dominated by an interstellar Empire in a fairly settled area of the galaxy, Star Frontiers took place on the Frontier of civilization where a major corporation "Pan Galactic Corporation" -- later multiple corporations -- was sponsoring the exploration and attempting to profit.  The Pan Galactic Corporation had come into existence to promote exploration and trade among four major alien races -- Human, Vrusk, Dralasite, and Yazirian.  These races have only just begun to interact with one another, and have banded together on the Frontier of explored space.  At that Frontier, they soon discover a new enemy that threatens to destroy any civilization that chooses to explore the Frontier.  That enemy is the Sathar, a wormlike race with hypnotic powers on the edge of explored space.  The exploring races have only recently completed their First Sathar War, during which they formed the United Planetary Federation, and are now having to deal with terrorist attacks and sabotage by agents of the Sathar...agents from among their own people.  In response to the Sathar's new warfare strategies -- espionage and terrorism -- the UPF has formed the Star Law Rangers who track Sathar agents and attempt to foil their plots.

The universes of the Traveller rpg and the Star Frontiers rpg have parallels in history.  One is of an empire in decline, the other is of mercantilism on the rise.  The tones of the settings are very different, but so are the rules.  Where Traveller characters are retired from former professions and already have a number of skills at which they are proficient -- especially if the characters were generated using the Mercenaries or High Guard supplements -- Star Frontiers characters are relatively inexperienced.  Even in the Expanded Star Frontiers rules, the characters have training in only two major skills -- and that training is at the lowest level.  The characters start near penniless and are in need of employment.  Players can be thankful that the Star Law Rangers are always looking for recruits, that the corporations are always looking for someone willing to risk Sathar attack while exploring planets on the Frontier, and then there's always the possibility of playing a group of Sathar agents...

Star Frontiers is a game that has a background that is rich in ideas for development...but it is also a game where one has to dig in order to find these ideas.  Trying to find out the history of the Star Frontiers universe is not an easy task.  Prior to the publication of Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space there was not a clear timeline of the development of civilization.  One had to induct heavily from the introduction in the Basic Game rule book, read and reread the racial descriptions, and scour every module for minutiae to get a sense of what was going on.  Zeb's Guide did some of the work for you, as it advanced the timeline to a point after the modules and to a point where the Sathar had developed mind controlling organisms that latch on to the victim's back to take over the nervous system (fans of Puppet Masters and Iron Empires take note).  Taking the Frontier beyond an outline and into a fleshed out campaign setting takes time, but it is worth it.

I've read the rules many time, but have never actually played the game.  It's an easy system, though I've recently come up with an even simpler version of their Basic Rule with my own Extremely Basic rules, but I might just use the setting and play the game with another game's rules set.  Maybe d20 Modern/Future, they did write a Star Frontiers setting section for the d20 Future book and had a web expansion with stats for the Sathar, maybe Alternity, or Savage Worlds.  Heck...I might just use the Traveller system for it, when I get my copy of the 5th edition.  It's a great game too.

Friday, July 22, 2011

[Blogging Northwest Smith] "Scarlet Dream" (Reprise)

Published in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales, "Scarlet Dream" is the third of C. L. Moore's tales of the interplanetary rogue trader Northwest Smith. It is also the third story in Paizo's Northwest of Earth collection. With this tale one can really see C. L. Moore developing her voice as an author of the weird supernatural horror story. Of the three Smith tales I have read for this series of blog posts, this is the best of the bunch so far.

Like in her previous Smith stories, there is little within the narrative itself that signifies that this is a science fiction story. Other than the fact that Smith eventually uses his magic wa... err ... "gun" against a foe, this story fits firmly within the narrative tropes of the "faerie" tale. Like Christina Rossetti's wonderfully frightening Goblin Market the tale demonstrates the consequences of tasting the "fruit" of Faerie. Like Dunsany's King of Elfland's Daughter, this tale has time in the land of magic move at a different pace than that of the real world. Unlike either of those tales, morality offers no salvation for our hero.

"Scarlet Dream" begins with Northwest Smith wandering the streets of a vibrant bazaar where he purchases a shawl made of an unbelievably light textile and bearing a mysterious glyph. The shawl, "clung to his hands like a live thing, softer and lighter than Martian 'lamb's-wool.' He felt sure it was woven from the hair of some beast rather than from vegetable fiber, for the electric clinging of it sparked with life. And the crazy pattern dazzled him with its utter strangeness."

In describing the physical properties of the shawl, Moore provides foreshadowing to the events that are about to unfold as the tale progresses. It is masterful foreshadowing as it occurs in a description where one does not assume the author is providing a map to the structure of the tale. Who would guess that the shawl clinging "to his hands like a live thing" hinted at darker things to come? Not darker things from the shawl itself, that would be obvious, but darker things that come as a result of the unnatural properties of another world. The use of strange patterns and objects of alien make would be used again by Moore in her section of Challenge from Beyond -- a shared universe tale she wrote in 1935 with H.P. Lovecraft, A. Merritt, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long. Each of those authors adding their own characteristic touches to the story. In Moore's case, that touch is an artifact -- a shawl in "Scarlet Dream" and a crystal in "Challenge."

The market where Smith buys the shawl is in the city of Lakkmanda on Mars, but the description of the market is similar to one that might be given to the bazaar of Baghdad. It is not until Smith returns to his hotel room, a small cubicle of polished steel, that one gets any visual sense of the science fictional (sfnal). It doesn't detract from the story that it isn't a "hard science" tale, it adds to the mystery and sense of wonder as the tale unfolds.

Smith falls asleep covered in the shawl and is overtaken by a disturbing dream. He awakens, only to fall back asleep into another dream. It is in the second dream that Smith's consciousness is transported into a fantastic land. When he arrives he meets a young woman who is fleeing a horrible beast. She is covered in blood and frantic. Smith calms her and soon discovers that he is in an eerie bucolic paradise. The weather is pleasant and the lakeside landscape is beautiful. The temple building where he arrived in the world is the only large man made structure. There are no books, no worldly distractions, and as he soon food.

He is initially puzzled by the lack of food, but the beauty of the land -- and of the woman (whose name is never revealed) -- intrigue Smith and he follows the young woman to her house. The next day Smith finds himself overcome with hunger and asks the young woman to take him to the temple to acquire sustenance. When he arrives, he sees people kneeling before spigots docilely consuming the liquid being dispensed. He himself begins to partake when he realizes that the people, and now he himself, are feeding on blood! No mention is made of where the blood comes from, and Smith recoils in horror at the thought of feeding on blood. Yet...he has found it satisfying. As the days pass, he eventually partakes in a routine of idyllic days and nights with the young woman interrupted only by regular feedings at the temple. Smith has completely overcome any moral objections to the feeding, satisfied that it sustains him.

Throughout the story, there are references to a beast of some sort that was responsible for the murder of the young woman's sister -- beast that eventually comes for everyone when their time has come. Smith is unworried, and the girl is fatalistically accepting of her mortality. Life in this world is idyllic, yet the routine of it eventually over comes Smith. He needs adventure and discovery, not a dull routine in a beautiful setting. Unable to return home, he decides that he must journey within this realm to find adventure, but this is to be denied him. The planet has no food to sustain him, save for the temple's blood spigots, and Smith learns another terrifying fact. It seems that the entire planet, plants and all, are alive and feed on the blood of living things. If you stand too long in one place, the grass will drain you of your blood. You cannot sleep if you aren't on stone as the plants will eat you. This is a world where all the denizens are sustained by blood.

Smith is not shocked or terrified by the prospect, he is resigned to satisfy his sense of adventure. His spirit cannot be sentenced to a life of dull routine. It is his Fredrick Jackson Turnerian frontiersman spirit that saves him from a fate worse than death.

How? That's for you to find out when you read the story.

What is particularly interesting in this story is the way that Moore uses the traditional elements of the faerie story, that of entering a beautiful but dangerous world, while demonstrating how a non-moral actor would react to the environment. What use has the adventurer for bucolic paradise? Apparently, not much. It would be unfair to leave out that the girl, like the sister in Goblin Market, sacrifices herself in order to save a beloved, but in Goblin Market the spirit of curiosity is the culprit and not the savior. Also interesting was Smith's reaction to the feeding process in the world. He is initially revolted, as I imagine any one would be, but he quickly overcomes his moral rejection and feeds like everyone else. This is the moment where the audience, though not the character, get to feel a sense of cosmic horror. We look into the abyss with Smith, horrified, but he allows the abyss to look back into him and is largely unaffected. This is a disturbing thing to read. How does one react to a protagonist who so quickly, Smith does not resist eating for days nobly suffering before succumbing, to temptation?

Smith may never have discovered the name of the young woman, but the audience never discovers the origin of the blood the people feast upon. Is it the blood of those killed by the beast? Is it the blood of those killed by the planet? Is it the blood of the planet? If it is the blood of those killed by the beast, is some of it the young woman's sister's blood? Creepy...and wonderful.

Previous Blogging Northwest Smith Entries:

2) Blogging Northwest Smith: "Black Thirst"
1) Blogging Northwest Smith: "Shambleau"

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.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

"Forlorn Hope" is a Must Have Addition to the SF Boardgamer's Shelves

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Victory Point Games office. While I was there, I playtested their upcoming title Assault on Galactus Prime with the game's designer and had a wonderful time. As the release date for that game approaches, I'll post a review of that gem. I was also able to meet one of my favorite game designers -- in both computer and print games -- Chris Taylor. When it comes to game mechanics and concepts, it just seems that Chris Taylor has a direct link into my subconscious. Either that or we have been having secret psychic discussions about games, books, movies, etc. for decades.

A perfect example of how his designs seem custom made for me is Forlorn: Hope.

Forlorn: Hope has a familiar and well loved theme...Marines vs. Aliens. Ever since I first read Heinlein's Starship Troopers, I have been a fan of the genre. I own a number of games that follow the theme: Bughunters, Starship Troopers, Space Hulk, Death Angel, Aliens, Doom of the Eldar, to name a few. Basically, if it has a small squad of outnumbered and desperate combatants facing off against a rapidly populating army of insectlike foes, I'm game.

When Forlorn: Hope was released last year, I was jonesing for a new addition to the genre. In actuality, I was jonesing for a game of Space Hulk 1st edition, but was having trouble finding one at an affordable price on eBay. I owned the 2nd edition, but I wanted to play with the original "d6" based rules. During this time, I happened to be reading one of Victory Point Games bi-weekly reports and noticed that they were featuring a new game by Chris Taylor called Forlorn: Hope. As I was already a fan of his, and of VPG, I immediately ordered a copy. Not long after this, Games Workshop released a limited edition of Space Hulk 3rd edition which used the mechanics of the 1st edition, so that itch was scratched. I carried my copy of Forlorn: Hope around for months, including to last year's Gen Con, but the stars never aligned to put together a play session.

That changed this last weekend, when most of my regular gaming group was unable to attend our regularly scheduled gaming schedule due to the game day falling upon a holiday weekend. It turned out that only one of my regular gaming group, Eric Lytle, was able to stop by. Thankfully, Eric is one of the few members of my regular group who loves board games as much as I do...and he's a fan of the Marines vs. Aliens genre to boot. I pulled out my copy of Forlorn: Hope, went over the rules with Eric, and played two quick scenarios. All of which took slightly more than two hours. The rules were clear, the play was quick, and the game exciting.

The rules to Forlorn: Hope are simple enough for the beginning gamer, but dynamic enough to satisfy the veteran.

One player takes the role of the space Marines who venture aboard a savaged space station named Hope. These Marines have been given a mission objective that must be fulfilled. The other player controls the Xeno "Mind" and seeks to devour all of the delicious Marines foolish enough to venture onto the Hope. The missions define the make up of the Marine squad and the forces available to the Xeno "Mind." The players set up according to the basic rules, and the Xeno player will draw a number of "mutation" cards which can affect game play as the mission unfolds. At the beginning of each turn the Marine player rolls to determine how many Action Points he or she has to spend on actions, every movement or shot that the player wants a Marine to do requires the expenditure of points. The Xeno player gets to activate every living Xeno during his or her turn. Play goes quickly and the combat resolution system is quick and deadly. The temptation is to play cautiously as the Marine player, but each scenario has a limited number of turns for the player to fulfill the objective and play must be fairly aggressive to succeed.

Our two sessions were bloodbaths, but the Marines did manage to recover the "Master Control General Function Neuralnet" from the Hope in both instances. Forlorn: Hope manages to capture the hopelessness, desperation, and horror of the best sessions of Space Hulk while keeping game play simple enough that the action never bogs down into rules discussions.

Like most VPG games the game is fairly expensive, but the games are crafted by hand by a company that is dedicated to making every gamer into a game designer. VPG is the only game company that I can think of that considers themselves both a company and a classroom. Given how quickly a session of Forlorn: Hope goes by, and considering the replay value due to different scenarios and mutation card effects, there is a lot of bang for your gaming buck in this product.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Falling Skies -- Alien Occupation TV Done Right?

The vast majority of "Alien Invasion" SFnal storylines follow a very familiar pattern. The aliens arrive, sometimes pretending to be friendly. The aliens attack. The aliens defeat us. We keep fighting. For some reason, either because of some gimmick or because of human tenacity, the aliens are defeated/leave. We all rejoice.

This pattern is used in H.G. Well's "War of the Worlds," Edgar Rice Burroughs' "The Moon Maid," Larry Niven's "Known Space," Jerry Pournelle/Larry Niven's "Footfall," Robert Heinlein's "Starship Troopers," L. Ron Hubbard's "Battlefield Earth," etc., and too many movies and television shows to list. The fact that it is formula doesn't mean that it isn't good. It is a tried and true formula that allows for narrative excitement while also allowing for a cathartic happy ending. When done extremely well, it also allows for sfnal commentary on modern human affairs.

The new TNT series "Falling Skies" is the latest television addition to this storied tradition. In "Falling Skies," the aliens have already invaded, destroyed most of the world's large cities, and crushed the military might of Earth. All that remain are ever increasingly small bands of humanity. Groups that get smaller as the aliens begin scanning for smaller and smaller communities. In the first episode, we are informed that the aliens are now tracking and attacking communities of 500 citizens and may soon move on to communities of 300 people. When the aliens encounter communities, they kill all the adults and capture the teenage children in order to put the teens in "mind control harnesses." The overall purpose of the harnesses is unknown, but hinted at. The aliens have established permanent bases, in the form of large structures, and their flagships have left our world to unknown locations. The initial shock and awe of the alien assault is over, "Falling Skies" is a tale of occupation and resistance.

"Falling Skies" follows the struggle of one band of the human resistance. That community includes a number of key players.

Porter -- the former military officer who believed that his fighting days were over and must now command a group that has all too few fighting men and women.

Captain Weaver(Will Patton) -- the military man who wants to take the fight to the aliens, and who resents the "civilian baggage" he is responsible for -- forgetting why it is that soldiers fight in the first place.

Tom Mason (Noah Wylie) -- a former professor of American History who has a deep knowledge of military history, but lacks practical experience in the art of war. He has read his Caesar, but had not used a firearm before the invasion.

Anne Glass (Blood Moongood) -- a pediatrician turned omni-doctor, who must minister to all the medical needs of the community.

There are a number of other important players, but Mason, Glass, and Weaver form provide a nice conflict triangle for the first two episodes. Weaver is solely concerned with preparing for combat, Glass is concerned with the health of the community, and Mason tries to balance the needs of society with the necessities of war.

Professor Mason provides the lens through which the narrative of the show progresses. He believes that the struggle of the survivors against the aliens is analogous to the American Revolution and believes that if we fight hard enough that it becomes a more expensive/difficult for the aliens to remain than the benefits they gain from occupation, then they will leave. It is Mason who describes the strategy needed in a way that exactly mirrors the traditional sfnal alien invasion tale. It also happens to mirror George Washington's strategy against the British.

The first episode is an engaging introduction to the stakes of the series. The survivors need food, and they need to find out why the aliens are capturing human children. Mason, and a small squad of the resistance, backtrack into the area the community is fleeing to find food and to see if they can locate any harnessed children. It is hoped that they can rescue the children, and find out what the harnesses are for. So far, all attempts to remove the harnesses from children have resulted in the death of the child and no increase the understanding of their purpose. The episode is engaging, and hints that "Falling Skies" can be an occupation/invasion story of the best kind.

It is in the second episode where the edges begin to fray, and the show risks becoming a retread of previously explored narratives -- and uninteresting narratives at that. In the second episode, "The Armory," the resistance is exploring an Armory in pursuit of additional weapons. They soon discover that there are more dangers than the alien "Skitters" that wander the post-invasion landscape. There are also wandering marauders who are on holiday from 80s post-apocalyptic narratives. The marauders of "The Armory" are led by the morally ambiguous ex-con John Pope (Colin Cunningham) who has found that the lawlessness of the post-invasion world suits his brutal nature.

[rant]Why is it that we always have to have the "morally ambiguous leader of wasteland marauders" in these stories? Can't we just do without them? Maybe have the morally ambiguous threat, or even sinister threat, lie hidden in the civilian population rather than as a leader of a roving band of maniacs.[/rant]

As disappointing as the John Pope narrative is, all hope for a good series is not lost as the upcoming third episode adds some interesting narrative conflicts. "The Armory" also includes some good character growth in the Weaver, Mason, and Glass characters.

I have pretty high hopes for the show. I also have a prediction regarding why the kids are being harnessed. I think that the children are being harnessed so that they can become the "pilots" of the alien's dreaded Mechs.

"Falling Skies" combines many elements of past human/alien conflict stories, including some similarities to the "Tripods" trilogy/quadrology of books by John Christopher. In fact, it is the fact that "Falling Skies" has tropes from so many of my favorite alien occupation stories, rather than just one series, is one of the key reasons I have hope for the series. It seems as if the writers of the show are steeped in the tropes of the genre and are comfortable using them, rather than thinking they are reinventing the invasion genre.

I eagerly await the next episode, "Prisoner of War."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

New "John Carter of Mars" Anthology to Be Released in 2012

It would not be an understatement to say that Edgar Rice Burroughs is the reason I read as voraciously as I do today. My introduction to SF/F were the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Anderson. My first glimpse into modern Fantasy was Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. The author who came to define the genre for me was Michael Moorcock. But it was Edgar Rice Burroughs who showed me all that SF/F can be. His fiction had everything. If I wanted to read "lost worlds" fiction, Burroughs was there. Historical fiction that bordered on Fantasy? Burroughs was there. Wild visions of other worlds that combined soap operatic romance with pulse pounding action? Burroughs was there. Westerns? Cave men? Dinosaurs? Bizarre Aliens? Post Apocalyptic adventure?

Burrough's imagination has always seemed limitless to me. His writing style was workmanlike and efficient in delivering its tale, and finding poetic beauty in one of his tales isn't always an easy task, but the story telling and the ideas are truly remarkable. He arguably created the genre of Planetary Romance with his John Carter stories (though they become formulaic at times), a genre that Leigh Brackett then mastered, but Burroughs returned to the genre in his Venus adventures and did a little post-modern deconstruction of the genre.

Burroughs showed me that written stories were the best tool to open up the imagination. He showed me in ways that a less prolific author, or a better writer, never could have. My mind filled in the details of the gaps in his writing, and it wondered what new genre Burroughs would be introducing me to in the next book I picked up.

What made Burroughs great, and why he inspired me to be a voracious reader, was that he wrote essentially every genre. My love for one author made me a lover of stories. Not a lover of stories of a particular genre, but of stories in the broader sense. It's the reason I'll read anything, and it's also the reason I'm able to talk with people about Gossip Girl, Hellcats, and uncountable Romantic Comedies. I love story, and I have Burroughs to thank for that.

I mention that Burroughs created my love of story because it was just announced that Simon and Schuster books will be releasing a new anthology of John Carter stories written by many of today's leading authors. The book is being edited by one of my favorite anthology editors, John Joseph Adams, and is scheduled to be released just before the new John Carter movie next year.

But it wasn't just the announcement that made me think about why I love Burroughs was the list of authors who will be contributing to the tome. If you were to ask me to create a list of authors "I would select" who would write in a publication featuring new tales of John Carter, it might look like the following:

1) Michael Moorcock
2) Lois McMaster Bujold
3) James Enge
4) Chris Roberson
5) Howard Andrew Jones
6) Ursula K. LeGuin
7) George R. R. Martin
8) Mike Resnick
9) C.J. Cherryh
10) Michael Chabon

Those would be the "big names" I would include off the top of my head. Some of these authors would be chosen for their own confessed love of Burroughs, and others to see what they would do with Burroughs' characters. I'm particularly interested in what Bujold would do.

Surprisingly, not one of those authors is listed as a writer in the upcoming publication. I actually find the lack of Moorcock and Roberson shocking...shocking I tell you.

Instead, this is the list of authors:

1) Joe R. Lansdale
2) Jonathan Maberry
3) David Barr Kirtley
4) Peter S. Beagle
5) Tobias S. Buckell
6) Robin Wasserman
7) Theodora Goss
8) Genevieve Valentine
9) L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
10) Garth Nix
11) Chris Claremont
12) S. M. Stirling
13) Catherynne M. Valente
14) Austin Grossman

There are many talented authors on the list, as well as a few I've never read. What sets this list apart from the list I wrote earlier, is that I wonder what exactly a John Carter story would look like from each of these authors. I have a good idea of what a Moorcock one would look like -- he did do his own Mars planetary romance series after all -- but I have no idea what Theodora Goss' version of planetary romance is. These authors come from across the speculative fiction spectrum. The list includes authors who write Young Adult Fiction, Horror, Short Fiction, Comic Books, "Literary" SF/F, and Classic Fantasy.

I excitedly await the volume and will be investigating the fiction of some of its authors -- the ones I haven't read yet -- to get a glimpse of what Adams has in store for us as Burroughs fans.