Friday, August 30, 2013

Follow Friday - A Chinese Checkers Board Has 121 Holes

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - The Whimsical Mama and I Read, Ergo I Write.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: If you could only have ONE – one book – for the rest of your life. Don’t cheat . . . what would it be?

This is a tough question for me, because there are a couple of directions I could go, at least one of which I think subverts the intent of the question entirely. And a direction that I think will be somewhat surprising. One possibility would be for me to choose the 3.5e D&D Player's Handbook, not because of any particular literary quality, but rather because if I were equipped with this volume, I could play games for the rest of my life. This may be somewhat academic, however, because even if I didn't have the book, I could probably reconstruct a playable game from memory so long as I had paper and pencil. That's just one of the side effects of playing role-playing games for more than three decades. It wouldn't be a copy of any existent gaming system, but it would be playable, and that's what matters. Because of this salient fact, even though it would be tempting to choose this book, I won't.

But that leaves me without a book selected. The problem is that there are so many great works of science fiction and fantasy that picking one of them is insanely difficult. I love Ursula K. Le Guin, but paring her portfolio down to a single book is nigh impossible: Does one pick The Left Hand of Darkness? Or The Dispossessed? How about The Lathe of Heaven? What about Samuel R. Delany's books? I could choose one of them, but once again you have the problem of which one. Dhalgren? Nova? Triton? It is simply an impenetrable decision of Gordion knot proportions. And I haven't even touched on some of the giants of science fiction. Should I pick a book by Asimov? Heinlein? Clarke? Brunner? Anderson? The list of worthy candidate books goes on and on.

Because I love classic science fiction, and because I am something of a traditionalist, I am going to go back to some of the earliest fiction that was more or less intentionally written as science fiction and choose the Treasury of World Fiction: H.G. Wells. I admit that this may be cheating just a little bit, because it is actually a compilation of several of H.G. Wells' stories that are often published as individual books. On the other hand, the stories included are all quite short by modern novel standards, so I don't feel like I'm cheating too much. The volume includes The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The First Man in the Moon, The Food of the Gods, and The War of the Worlds; essentially covering the high points of Wells' writing career, and most of the main thematic areas of science fiction as a genre. This is a fantastic collection, and one that I could reread over and over again, and for that reason, I'd pick this as my one book to get me through the rest of my life.

Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Jeanne Calment Was 122 Years Old When She Died

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2013 Prometheus Award Nominees

Location: LoneStarCon 3 in San Antonio, Texas.

Comments: The slate of nominees for the 2013 Prometheus Award for Best Novel highlights what seems to be the primary problem faced by these awards - the list basically consists of "A book by Cory Doctorow and a bunch of novels by people you might not have heard of and probably haven't read if you aren't part of the very insular club of libertarian science fiction fans". This might not seem to be a problem if you are a member of this club and just want to pat other members on the back for preaching to the choir. But if you want your award to actually make a difference in promoting the "message fiction" that libertarian science fiction clearly is, then this insularity is definitely counterproductive.

Best Novel

Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

Other Nominees:
Arctic Rising by Tobias S. Buckell
Darkship Renegades by Sarah A. Hoyt
Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez
The Unincorporated Future by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin

Hall of Fame

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Other Nominees:
As Easy as A.B.C. by Rudyard Kipling
Courtship Rite by Donald M. Kingsbury
Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold
'Repent, Harlequin!' said the Ticktockman by Harlan Ellison
Sam Hall by Poul Anderson

Go to previous year's nominees: 2012
Go to subsequent year's nominees: 2014

Book Award Reviews     Home

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Event - Gen Con, August 14th-18th, 2013: Friday

Exterminate! Exterminate!
Friday: During our time at Gen Con, Angela and I participated in five RPG events, and after the first two excellent sessions on Thursday, I was looking forward to more great gaming. The let down of the somewhat mediocre experience of the Thursday night game dampened my spirits a bit, but since it was overall a reasonably solid game, only a bit. Unfortunately, Thursday morning turned out to be the high point for role-playing sessions for the two of us. Turning to Friday morning, we were scheduled to play in another session using the Ubiquity system. This time, instead of Victorian Steampunk literary characters, we were a 1920's Hollywood movie crew in the Belgian Congo there to film a movie, clearly intended to be an Indiana Jones type adventure mixed in with a little bit of King Kong sensibility. The problem with this game wasn't the system - the Ubiquity system is a perfectly serviceable, albeit extremely rules-light RPG system - but rather that the GM didn't know the time period or the place very well. And when you are using a rules-light system, the setting and the story become the most important elements of the game, because the mechanics don't offer much to hold the interest of a group of players.

The first problem occurred when someone asked the GM what year the game was set in, and he hemmed and hawed for a second and announced that it was 1927. There is nothing wrong with setting a game in 1927 per se, but if you are running a game focused on Hollywood actors and directors and you don't realize that this was the year that The Jazz Singer, the first major theatrical talking movie was released, then you're missing an opportunity to give the characters in the game some personal motivations. If you also decide to have the main villains in your 1927 adventure be Nazis when Hitler didn't rise to power until 1933, anyone with any knowledge of history is going to be jarred out of their ability to suspend disbelief. The other problem with the session is that the group had no real defined goal. My character was a Belgian expatriate living in the Congo and working as a jungle guide while secretly serving as an agent for Belgian intelligence. Supposedly I was on a mission to find the legendary spider temple and prevent it from falling into the hands of the Germans, but we more or less stumbled across both the temple and the Germans without doing much of anything, and then no one else really cared very much about the Nazi's in King Leopold's domains.

And this brings us to the other of the failings of the GM - the game was set in the Belgian Congo, but he didn't know much of anything about Belgian colonialism, Belgium's odd and unique relationship with the Belgian Congo, or, most grievously, Tintin. One of the rules of the Ubiquity system is that characters are given "style points" for doing things that are "in character" for them. My character was supposed to name his whip to get a style point, and I took this as a quirk that meant he should name other possessions that he valued. Given the oddity of having the game set in 1927, I mentally moved the game to roughly 1936 and began making Tintin references, since Tintin was such a huge influence on Belgian popular culture of the era. But the GM knew absolutely nothing about Tintin, so naming my whip Captain Haddock and naming a machine gun I acquired later Professor Calculus essentially fell on deaf ears.

We eventually ended up in a huge melee against a small squad of Germans in the bowels of the spider temple as pony-sized spiders hatched and feasted upon tied up natives. And at this point all of the various competing character objectives came into play, as our party members betrayed one another while dodging German submachine gun fire. And this internecine element really ruined the game for Angela, especially when the GM revealed that all of the goals she had had her character working towards through the entire session were based upon a lie, and all her effort was essentially wasted. While we got to shoot a bunch of Germans and giant spiders and drive away in a truck while the temple exploded, the weak GMing coupled with the somewhat forced player versus player struggles made the adventure simply unsatisfying.

The UnderGopher
After lunch the day got better, but that was because instead of participating in another RPG session we were scheduled to attend a panel titled "So You Want to Start a Podcast" featuring the members of the RPG oriented podcast Under Discussion. Dustin (also known as 8one6) and Brady (also known as WDR), who are the two regular hosts of the podcast, did most of the talking, and gave lots of useful advice for aspiring podcasters running the gamut of topics including tips on how to plan and organize your podcast, how many regular hosts to have, what kinds of recording equipment and editing software to use (and why it is probably a good idea to use relatively inexpensive options at first), how to choose and focus your content to appeal to an audience, and even some tips on how to edit your episodes once you have recorded them. Because we've been considering starting a podcast (and after listening to the panel, we realized that we really need to start two podcasts to do what we want), Angela and I took copious notes, and if we do get a podcast (or two) of our own off the ground we will owe the UnderGopher crew a very big, colossal thank you.

Of course, the panel would not have been interesting and enjoyable if Derek and Brady had not been funny and engaging when they presented their material, and much of the content was delivered in the form of humorous anecdotes from their own missteps in the development and production life of Under Discussion. There is a reason why they have recorded more than one hundred and thirty episodes of their podcast when most podcasts have a lifespan of less than four, and in part this is because they are hilarious both on their show and in person. I have to admit that prior to attending this panel at Gen Con, not only had I never listened to a single episode of Under Discussion, I had no idea who either Derek of Brady were. During the panel, Angela realized that she followed Derek on Twitter and had had conversations with him via that medium, meaning that for one brief, shining moment, she was a more well-informed RPG gamer than I was. Since returning from Gen Con, I have been busy rectifying my ignorance and listening to hours and hours of Under Discussion. You can find the complete set of Under Discussion episodes on their website UnderGopher, and you can follow Dustin on twitter under the name 8one6, and Kevin on twitter under the name Hooligan.

Setting up for the Big Game.
After sucking in as much information as we could from the Under Discussion panel, Angela and I went to our final event of the day, which was also the largest event we participated in at Gen Con: The Big Game. Mayfair Games, the publisher of Settler of Catan, decided that they wanted to try to set a world record for the most people playing a single board game. And this event was that attempt. Mayfair Games had a thousand people scheduled to participate in the event, and we were all going to play one giant game of Settlers of Catan. Well, a slightly modified version of the game anyway. All of the players were seated on either side of long tables, with map boards in between us that overlapped and formed one long continuous board. Each pair of players facing one another shared a single island, with a small sea of water in between "your" island and the islands of your neighbors to the left and right. Every player had their own set of wood pieces that included settlements, cities, roads, and ships plus their own set of resource and development cards, and each pair of players facing one another played "head to head" for purposes such as the "Longest Road" and "Largest Army" achievements. Play went back and forth between each air of players, so essentially every other turn was your turn. You could trade resources with the player across the table, and the players at the boards immediately to your left and right. We all had predetermined starting positions, and every player in the room used the same die rolls on each turn, which were projected on a pair of large screens.

The board is set up and ready to play.
Other than that, the game was pretty much like any other game of Settlers of Catan in which you are playing in a room with nine hundred and twenty-two other players and are overseen by a collection of employees of Mayfair Games and a representative from the Guinness Book of World Records. Neither Angela or I won the game, although we did both win our "head to head" matches. The official score required for winning was 25 points, and when that happened I was sitting on 16 points and Angela was at 17, and most of the players near us were in that range of scores. After the game we were able to keep the wood pieces we used, and since the pieces were all in nonstandard colors for Catan pieces, this was a nice gift. We ended up with a set of black pieces and a set of dark green pieces. We also got to keep the cards we used in our games, and the map boards we played on. The Mayfair Games people made sure everyone was taken care of and gave duplicate map boards to all of the "losing" players so no one walked away without a cool souvenir of the experience. The event was a lot of fun and we were told that the Guinness representative confirmed that the game qualified for, and set the world record.

Angela and Savannah playing Star Trek Catan. Also, me.
After the Big Game, we met up with Savannah and were soon sitting on the floor of the lobby of the Indiana Convention Center eating hot wings and playing Cards Against Humanity with her and a number of other people, including three members of Five Year Mission (specifically, P.J., Chris, and Mike). In addition to the obvious opportunities to participate in organized convention activities, one of the great things about Gen Con is that with so many gamers in attendance, there are lots of opportunities to play pick up games with people you don't get to see very often. Because we scheduled organized events for most of every day, we didn't play very many informal games, although we did manage to knock out a round of Forbidden Island and play Star Trek Catan a couple times during the course of the Con in addition to our extended Friday night Cards Against Humanity round. Our friend Alex, on the other hand, was mostly at Gen Con to play pick up games, and even spent one day walking around the Con lugging about a bulky container full of Malifaux miniatures hoping he'd run into someone else who happened to bring his box of miniatures and they'd be able to find a place to set up and have a game. Needless to say, we gave him a little bit of ribbing for this level of wild optimism.

In any event, during our group's enjoyment of Cards Against Humanity we were approached by someone promoting their Kickstarter in a manner that I would hold up as an example of how not to promote your project. First off, he decided to interrupt a group of people in the middle of playing a game. It is never a good idea to promote your product by jumping in the middle of a group of people who are having fun and going into a marketing spiel. We were playing a game. Interrupting us was not a good way to get us to look upon you favorably. Second, his game was intended to be a replacement game for Cards Against Humanity, and to encourage everyone to support his project, he started by telling us how much he liked Cards Against Humanity but then went on to tell us everything he through was wrong with the game. But we had chosen to play this game. Telling us everything you think is wrong with the game that we were in the middle of playing and enjoying is also not a good way to get people to be well-disposed towards your ambitions. Third, he droned on for far longer than he needed to, repeating himself a couple times, and covering every single detail of his new game design. A thirty second sales pitch probably would have been acceptable. Five or ten minutes is inordinately long. Needless to say, I have no intention of supporting his Kickstarter, or even telling anyone what it is. But if you are reading this and happen to have a brilliant game idea that you are trying to get people to support, consider this as a case study in exactly the wrong way to go about that.

Gen Con, August 14th-18th, 2013: Wednesday and Thursday
Gen Con, August 14th-18th, 2013: Saturday and Sunday

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Musical Monday - The Trouble With Tribbles (Mike Rittenhouse) by Five Year Mission

If a band made up of five suburban guys from Indianapolis who write geeky rock songs about episodes from the original Star Trek series want to celebrate the iconic Trouble With Tribbles episode, the natural thing for them to do is dress up as Klingons and rap about how much they hate being foiled by Captain Kirk. To be fair, they only rap as Klingons for one of the many Trouble With Tribbles songs the band recorded, specifically the song that Mike Rittenhouse wrote.

Five Year Mission is a band that is so nerdy good that we went to see them twice at Gen Con, and they were great both times. I have, in fact, never been to a Five Year Mission concert that was not incredibly enjoyable. This song, featuring Chris, Noah, Andy, and Mike rapping about their travails as Klingons while P.J. riffs on guitar, is one of a set of six songs written by the members of the band, with four of them taking up the job of composer once, and Chris taking two turns in the role. All six of the Tribbles songs plus P.J.'s birthday tribute to George Takei are found on the band's Trouble With Tribbles CD, and one of the songs will be put on their upcoming Year 3 CD. Even though all of the Tribbles songs are great, I hope this is the one that gets picked.

Previous Musical Monday: The Mystery's Gone by The Doubleclicks
Subsequent Musical Monday: Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul, and Mary

Five Year Mission     Musical Monday     Home

Friday, August 23, 2013

Follow Friday - The Teutonic Tribes That Invaded England After the Romans Left Referred to the Number 120 as the Long Hundred

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Spare Time Book Blog and Read in Paris.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Book Selfie! Take a pic with your current read.

Because I can't ever read just one book, right now I'm in the middle of three plus a magazine of short fiction. Right now I'm reading Doctor Who in Time and Space, a collection of essays about Doctor Who edited by Gillian Leitch, The Sandman: Brief Lives, the seventh volume in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, Everygnome's Guide to Paratechnology by Joseph J. Bailey, and an issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

Go to subsequent Follow Friday: A Chinese Checkers Board Has 121 Holes

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Event - Gen Con, August 14th-18th, 2013: Wednesday and Thursday

So, after years of putting it off, I went to Gen Con for the first time last week, a convention that is billed as the best four days in gaming, and it more than lived up to expectations. The four days I and Angela were there were gloriously fun, delightfully geeky, and incredibly exhausting. Gen Con is a huge convention, even larger at this point than Dragon Con, so no one person will ever be able to experience it all. I can't do justice to the whole event, and I don't intend to try. This post is about my Gen Con experience, and for the most part, Angela's Gen Con experience, with a little bit of second hand knowledge thrown in after being gleaned from talking with friends who were also at the convention.

Five Year Mission
Wednesday: After driving for about nine hours from Virginia with our friend Alex in tow, we pulled into Indianapolis mid-afternoon. We dropped our stuff at our hotel and picked up our friend Kristine from Fanboy Comics at the airport. Then we headed to the convention center to hear Five Year Mission play a free concert for the Sun King Brewing Company who was having a tasting event outside. The band played a fantastic set, featuring all of their great songs from their Year 1 CD such as The Cage, The Corbomite Maneuver, their live-only shandy version of The Menagerie, Part Two, and several songs from their Year 2 CD such as Space Seed and The Squire of Gothos. The band also played a couple of their Trouble with Tribbles songs including Mike Rittenhouse's hilarious Klingon rap song,  as well as some new material that is slated to be released on their upcoming Year 3 CD including I, Mudd and The Doomsday Machine. The band once again showed me why they are my favorite Star Trek themed band, and one of the best sources of fantastic nerdy music this side of Jonathan Coulton and The Doubleclicks. We were also able to pick up our tickets at the will-call booth late on Wednesday, which I highly recommend as the line was not very long.

Thursday: Thursday was my most gaming heavy day. Actually, because Angela and I had the exact same schedule, it was our most gaming heavy day. The day started early, partially because we had a game session that was scheduled to start at nine, and partially because Kristine needed to be at the convention by eight to get her game session set up.

A side note about accommodations: The hotels next to the Indiana Convention Center are expensive. To save money, we booked a hotel about fifteen minutes away from the convention center and reserved a parking spot in a lot a little less than a half a mile walk from the convention center. This meant that we spent about half as much as we would have if we had booked a room in one of the designated convention hotels. I don't necessarily recommend this for everyone, but I did notice that we weren't the only Gen Con attendees at our hotel. If you do decide to book a hotel far enough away that you have to drive to and from the convention, I highly recommend reserving a parking spot in one of the nearby lots. We didn't reserve a spot on one of the days we were there, and parking was difficult to find and much more expensive. One drawback is that if you are with a group, the length of your day at the Con is largely dictated by the schedules of the other people. In our case, our schedule was essentially dictated by Kristine, whose schedule began every day at eight in the morning and ended at midnight.

Our first game of the convention was "Defenders of the Empire" a Victorian themed Steampunk adventure using the Ubiquity system, a rules-light dice pool role-playing game. Most of the pregenerated characters were historical or literary characters - our party included Professor Moriarty, Doctor Watson, Sebastian Moran, Aleister Crowley, and a robotic Richard Burton. I played Professor Bainbridge, a decidedly egotistical mad scientist with a penchant for naming his inventions after himself, and Angela played Emma Deerfield, a woman fed up with the restrictions placed on her by Victorian society who invented a potion that allowed her to transform into a hulking version of herself. The adventure had our group tracking down the mysterious disappearances of British ships in the Mediterranean near Sardinia. Our party lured the pirates out of hiding with a decoy merchant ship and then used the Banbridge submersible to fire the Bainbridge steam-powered torpedoes and cripple the pirates before Moran took to the deck armed with the Banbridge repeating speargun to fight off boarders. Burton, with his powerful robotic body powered by a Bainbridge battery, was able to smash his way through several pirates as well. Of all the adventures we played over the course of Gen Con, this one was probably the most fun in terms of the adventure, although the system was a little bit too light for our tastes. In addition, many of the pregenerated characters had conflicting personal goals, resulting in some party infighting, which is a style of play that Angela hates. Whether this was a result of the Ubiquity system itself, or simply the adventure set up wasn't clear, but it did detract a little bit from her enjoyment of the session.

For our second game, we played through the adventure "Fafnir's Treasure" using the Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok game system with the game's designer Andrew Valkauskas as the GM. Of all the games we played at Gen Con, both Angela and I agree that this was our favorite combination of a good adventure using a fun game system that was overseen by a good GM. The setting for the game is the worlds of Norse mythology during the twilight of the gods leading to Ragnarok and the game system itself is interesting in that it doesn't use dice in its mechanics, but rather resolves actions using Futhark runes drawn from each player's bag, which gives the game a very "Norse" feel. I played Jokull the runecaster and Angela played Sigyn the shield-maiden death dancer. Our group also included Fjori the skald and Vanadis the witch. After sailing in to an icy bay and finding a town seemingly overrun by strange forces, we ended up siding with the forces of Muspelheim (to the extent that it mattered in a single session game like this) and going on a quest for the Ring of the Nieblungs. The blend of a atmospheric setting supported by a perfectly attuned game system, a fun adventure, and a GM who was both good at running a session and knew the rules inside and out made for a great session. Of all the games that we played at Gen Con that I had not played before, Fate of the Norns is the one I am most likely to acquire and use to run a campaign.

At the end of the session Valkauskas also handed me a card for another project he is involved in called Biome Blox, which is currently in the Kickstarter phase of its development. The basic idea for Biome Blox is to create LEGO compatible blocks that gamers can use to build scenery for their game sessions. In addition to trees, waterfalls, arches, doors, and walls, the Biome Blox will have "cover" pieces to put over the tops of LEGO pieces and transform them into terrain usable with miniatures. As the owner of large piles of LEGO and LEGO compatible blocks, the idea of a modular set that would allow me to use my existing collection to augment my role-playing sessions is very enticing. I plan on contributing at least something to their Kickstarter so this project can get off the ground.

Our final session of the night was our only real misstep of the entire convention, and it was only a tiny one. The session was a fusion of 3.5e D&D and Call of Cthulhu. Although the game information provided said that it was suitable for people with no experience with the system, it required twentieth level D&D characters, which the players were expected to provide. To a certain extent, the misstep was our fault, Angela signed us up for the game and didn't realize that we were supposed to provide our own characters, and I didn't check to see that a link was provided in the session description where this was spelled out. On the other hand, I simply cannot see how one can bill a twentieth level game session as being suitable for beginners with no experience with the system. In any event, we showed up without characters, which would have been a problem except that one of the other players had created two characters for the session, and allowed Angela to play one of them - a twentieth level halfling rogue, which suited her perfectly. The DM had a pregenerated arcane archer that I could play, so we sat down and started. The party consisted of a fighter, a thaumaturge, a mystic theurge, Angela's rogue, my arcane archer, a monk, and two paladin/clerics who had been specifically created with fighting Cthulhu's minions in mind.

As we played, I was reminded just how awful the arcane archer prestige class is, and this particular character was poorly designed making him both a terrible spell-caster and an ineffective archer. Most of my time was spent firing arrows at enemies that usually missed, or if they hit did minimal damage, and because I was a sorcerer, looking through my rather unimpressive collection of low level spells and deciding casting one of them would be even less useful than firing Styrofoam arrows at enemies. Because we had an eight member party, my lack of punch didn't really hurt us much, but I did quickly redesign the character during our first game break, after which he was marginally more useful, although still hampered by the fact that the arcane archer prestige class is quite simply a terribly designed class.

I was also somewhat annoyed by the DM, who didn't tell anyone about how the Sanity mechanics worked in conjunction with the d20 system. We were given a sanity score based upon our Wisdom, and made periodic sanity checks through the session. But even though we had two characters who had spent a couple dozen skill points on occult knowledge about Cthulhu, and a couple of twentieth level spell casters, he didn't inform anyone that some spells could restore sanity until someone complained about their dropping sanity in the last half hour of the session. Unfortunately, early in the session, when we were confronted with an NPC who had gone insane, he told us that no magical help would do anything for this person, leading everyone to believe that sanity loss was irreversible. And then when he fessed up that some spells could restore sanity, he had to consult a DM at the neighboring table to figure out how the mechanics worked. This sort of disorganization is bad enough, but hiding the ball from the players by withholding information that characters would know (even if the players would not) until the players intone certain magic words is simply bad DMing.

Cthulhu showed up. We all went insane.
The world ended.
However, all was not lost, despite some sloppy DMing, mostly resulting from the DM having a spotty knowledge of the actual rules (and if you are going to DM a twentieth level D&D game well, your knowledge of the rules has to be rock solid and this DM's knowledge was far from that), because the adventure was somewhat interesting and the d20 system is robust enough to deliver a decent play experience even if the Dungeon Master isn't at the top of his game. In the end, Cthulhu was summoned to our world and we all were killed or went insane, which is about par for the course for this sort of game. For the most part, the other players at the table made the game good, as they all got into the adventure and were all very kind toward Angela as she struggled to play a high level game for the first time. Her entire previous experience with D&D had been a handful of low-level sessions, so making the leap to twentieth level play was quite a feat. After being a bit overwhelmed at first, Angela ended up having a great time and now insists that I must finish my campaign preparations and run a 3.5e D&D game for our home group.

Gen Con, August 14th-18th, 2013: Friday

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Musical Monday - The Mystery's Gone by The Doubleclicks

I spent the last five days at Gen Con which, among other things (including going to see the Doubleclicks and Five Year Mission both put on a brilliant concerts), seems to be the venue for meeting people in real life who you had only previously known via Twitter, Facebook, or e-mail. Leaving aside drive-by sightings of famous people like Larry Elmore, Walter Koenig, and John Scalzi, that don't really count, I met several people who I had only interacted with before online, although most of them were the members of Five Year Mission - Noah Butler, Andy Fark, P.J. O'Connor, Mike Rittenhouse, and Chris Spurgin - who were great, or people who I only knew online but that people I was with knew in person, such as a fantastically nerdy girl I met named Savannah (who also happens to be engaged to P.J. O'Connor, which appears to be a match made in nerd heaven). Some other people I was at the Con with met people they had only known before online: For example one of my friends met Brian Patterson, also known as d20 Monkey. On the whole, every face to face meeting of internet friends of which I am aware went very well and resulted in further solidified friendships.

But there is a flip side to this sort of experience. Sometimes when you meet someone in real life, they turn out to be not quite as good as their online persona led you to expect. Maybe it was because you had invested them with unrealistic expectations. Maybe it was because you mistakenly assumed they were a completely different person because that was what you wanted them to be. Or maybe their online presence actually was completely misleading and they aren't nearly as impressive in real life as they were when filtered through the lens of the internet. And that's the phenomenon that the Doubleclicks song The Mystery's Gone is about - the disappointment that one feels when meeting someone who just doesn't measure up to how they presented themselves via humorous tweets, good looking Facebook photos, and insightful blog posts. And when it turns out that they aren't nearly as witty, funny, or engaging in person it feels like finding a seemingly empty parking space only to discover that it is occupied by a Smart Car.

Also, oatmeal cookies should always have chocolate chips, and not raisins. Those of you who put raisins in them are evil.

Previous Musical Monday: Lasers and Feelings by The Doubleclicks

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review - The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections by Neil Gaiman

Short review: A collection of short tales involving Dream, Death, and the other Endless. One lesson - making deals with the Death is risky.

Endless Morpheus
Time has no meaning for him
Inverted stories

Full review: Fables and Reflections is the sixth installment in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series and is made up of nine stories that are at best loosely connected to one another, but which serve primarily to comment on the nature of what dreams are and what they mean, as well as emphasizing just how alien and inhuman Dream truly is. One exception is the three part story Song of Orpheus that retells the mythic fable of Orpheus and Eurydice, but roots it in the unique reality of the Sandman universe, interjecting Dream, Death, and the other Endless into the narrative, filling in grey areas from the original story. Another exception is the tetrology of "emperor" stories, each telling the tale of a different ruler, and which speak to how dreams both create and limit the power of those who hold power.

The first story in the volume is Fear of Falling, a brief tale about how dreams can limit us or force us to reach greater heights. Although this story is quite short, it serves as a thematic framework for the stories that follow, showing the palpable power of human dreams to shape our lives. In large part, this book serves to answer the question of why one would focus on Dream, rather than some of the more obvious Endless such as Death, Desire, or Destiny. The answer is made clear in these tales: Because the dominion of Dream is what makes humans what they are, and what makes humans aspire to be more than that.

The hidden power of Fables and Reflections lies in the thematically linked stories concerning how dreams and ambition connect to those who would rule over others. The first three of these stories walk backwards through time, from nineteenth century United States to eighteenth century France and then to first century Rome, before reversing their flow and moving ahead to eighth century Baghdad. This jumping about in time, and at times, telling a story backwards, is a means by which it seems that Gaiman emphasizes the timelessness of Dream. As one of the Endless, Dream is immortal, and as a result, time has little meaning to him, a meaninglessness that is reflected in the story structure. But in addition to this overarching structural message, each story contains it own commentary on the nature of political power.

Arranged in two thematically linked diptychs, the first pairing Three Septembers and January with Thermidor, showing opposing scales of power and morality. Three Septembers centers on Joshua Abraham Norton, an actual historical figure who proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States in 1859. Gaiman's story places Norton at the center of a challenge issued by Despair to Dream. Norton had once been wealthy, but lost all of his fortune speculating in Peruvian rice, whereupon the story imagines that he contemplated giving in to despair and committing suicide. Despair needles Dream, suggesting that Dream is powerless to save Norton from her embrace, so Dream gives Norton a crazy and insane dream. Norton obviously has no actual power as the self-proclaimed emperor of the United States, but his version of the world is a better place than the one he actually lives in. He helps Sam Clemens when he has writer's clock. He is kind to Chinese immigrants. He is dignified with tourists, although he does object to the word "Frisco" being used as a designation for his beloved "San Francisco". As an encounter with Pain sent as an emissary from Desire shows, Norton is content with what he has, and as a result, his "proclamations" and actions are inherently unselfish. He wants nothing for himself, because he is satisfied with his own dream, so he uses his "authority" to try to shape the world in a better direction. Dreams, the story says, can save our lives and make us want the world to be a better place, even if they might make us insane as well.

Emperor Norton's story is sharp contrasted by the tale told in Thermidor, set in revolutionary France when the country was under the sway of the Committee of Public Safety and Robespierre's vision of a new society. Dream contracts with Johanna Constantine, asking her to recover an object for him. Soon she is in France, transporting a severed head in a bag. An encounter with a couple of loutish soldiers leads to her capture and imprisonment in the Luxembourg, where it becomes clear just how much Robespierre is willing to sacrifice in the name of the revolution. While questioning Johanna on her way to and in prison, St. Just and Robespierre off-handedly reveal how inherently unfair the system has become, and how it has consumed even its most ardent adherents. Thomas Paine makes a brief appearance to be mocked by St. Just and to condemn how the revolution has twisted and mutilated his words. Presaging the story in The Song of Orpheus, Johanna's quarry is the severed head of Orpheus, an artifact of myth and legend that Robespierre wants to destroy so as to better enable him to usher in a new age based entirely on reason. But reason, in this case, is a world without history and without dreams. In contrast to Norton, who has no power and desires nothing more for himself, Robespierre has almost unlimited power and craves nothing but to acquire more. In Norton's dreams, it seems that power is to be used to serve humanity, while in Robespierre's vision, humans are subordinated to the dictates of power. Norton's empire is built on nothing but dreams, while Robespierre wants to extinguish dreaming altogether.

The second set of political stories consist of August set in imperial Rome during the reign of Augustus Caesar, Ramadan set in Baghdad during the suzerainty of and Caliph Haroun al-Rashid. The two tales illustrate the differences between a love for a time and a city, and a hatred for them. In August, the Imperator hires a dwarf named Lycias to help him impersonate a beggar, as he does once a year. The story is mostly a dialogue between Augustus and Lycias, or rather, an interview, as Lycias peppers the off-duty Imperator with questions and Augustus opines upon the nature of power, the gods, history, and the future of the city. It seems that Augustus had found two sets of prophecies, one heralding perpetual glory for Rome, while the other predicting its decay and destruction. Augustus selected the future he wished to come to pass, and had all references to the other destroyed. The story only features Dream for a brief portion of its length, and then only as a guest in Augustus' mind to tell him how to deal with his nightmares. And so Augustus takes one day a year off to pose as a beggar in order to hide from the gods, including divine Julius who Augustus so despises, and make his plans out of their sight. Augustus loathes Rome even as he builds temples to beautify it, because he loathes its architect. The story shows how dreams of vengeance can consume an entire civilization and bring it to its knees, causing its glory to wither and fade to dust.

On the flip side is the story Ramadan, featuring a ruler who loves his city more than anything else. Caliph Haroun al-Rashid also disguises himself to walk the streets of his city, not to plot its demise, but rather to revel in its glories. Like Augustus did, al-Rashid realizes that no city can last forever. Unlike Augustus, al-Rashid fears this coming to pass, because, unlike Augustus, al-Rashid loves Baghdad. So, in the style of Arabian Nights, al-Rashid takes a special key and walks through magical doors leading to and through vaults filled with sometimes fabulous and sometimes oddly mundane treasures until he finds a chip he hopes he can use to bargain in exchange for everlasting fame for his city. After drawing Dream's attention, al-Rashid first tries to blackmail the Endless into doing what he wants, and after that fails, they go to the city market and haggle. al-Rashid realizes that Baghdad is at its height, and worries that it will fade from memory and become nothing but another forgotten relic. Instead, he wants Dream to take the city, or at least its essence, into his realm so that it will remain the stuff of nighttime fantasies forever.

The centerpiece of Fables and Reflections is the story Song of Orpheus, told in three broad strokes, with a sad little epilogue. In the first section we meet Orpheus on his wedding day as he is about to be married to his love Eurydice. Orpheus makes the mistake of bringing his friend the satyr Aristaeus to the nuptials, but before the tragedy plays out we are introduced to Orpheus' aunts and uncles the Endless: Depair, Delerium, Desire, Destruction, Destiny, and of course Death, although the story uses their Greek names. Orpheus, in Gaiman's telling, is Dream's son by the muse Calliope, a shift from mythology to fit the story into the Sandman series. The first hint that there will be trouble at the celebration is when Death reveals that she is not merely in attendance as a guest, but also because she has work to do there. Aristaeus, overcome by drink, attempts to rape Eurydice, and as she flees she is bitten by a viper and dies. The second portion of the story details Orpheus' famous attempt to recover his wife from Hades. He first begs his father to help him, but when Dream refuses, stating that all things come to an end, Orpheus disowns his heritage and rejects Dream as his father. In a development that perhaps Orpheus should have thought more about, his uncle Destruction offers to help him visit his aunt Death to bargain with her for the return of Eurydice. Death makes a bargain with him to allow him to travel to Hades and return alive: She agrees never to take him to the underworld, a bargain that has dire consequences, as all bargains with Death seem to. Following the classic myth, Orpheus travels to the Underworld, charms Hades into allowing Eurydice to leave, and then allows his doubts to condemn her to death again. In the final chapter, Calliope visits her disconsolate son where we learn that he has tried to kill himself in his despair, but because Death had promised never to come for him, he could not. Orpheus is then set upon by the Bacchante and his flesh consumed, leaving only his still living head for Dream to find in the epilogue. The story closes with a conversation between the two that shows just how much Dream cares, but also how cold and inhuman he truly is. But the reader already knew how Orpheus ended up, having been shown his animated severed head earlier in the book, and yet later in time. And we've also seen Calliope before in the series and later in time as well, wrecked by her relationship with Dream. This is the inside-out storytelling that runs through the series, many times showing the effects prior to showing the cause, demonstrating the timelessness of the Endless via the disjointed nature of the narrative.

The remaining three stories range from pure fantasy to merely the intersection of history and fantasy. The Hunt is framed as a story told by a grandfather from the old country to his granddaughter, raised in the new world of television and music videos. While his granddaughter interrupts and complains, he recounts how a young boy named Vassily, one of "the people", encounters a gypsy woman in the forest and acquires a locket with the picture of the Duke's youngest daughter from her. He falls in love with the image of the Duke's daughter, and after he later finds the gypsy woman dead in the forest, he takes her pack of treasures, that she said included the heart of Koschei the Deathless, the cloak of night, and the Drum Inescapable, as well as a book and sets out to win the girl for himself. His journey takes him on a few adventures, but most importantly he crosses paths with a woman of the people and also with Dream's servant Lucien who wants to acquire the book he carries. Vassily demands the girl as his price for the book, which Dream eventually consents to, but once he finds her, Vassily realizes that a woman being the object of your dreams is insufficient, her dreams must also match your dreams.

Soft Places sees the return of Fiddler's Green, a personified place of dreams that a very young Marco Polo meets while he is lost in the Desert of Lop. Also joining them is Rustichello, the man who far in Polo's future, will help cowrite Polo's autobiography while they are sharing a Genoese cell. This juxtaposition of two people from different times continues with the book's theme that the dream world is not bound by ordinary notions of time and space. In the end, Polo is saved by an act of generosity towards a freshly released Dream, which is yet another subtle indication that the ordinary strictures of time and space don't apply to Dream as it was established in Preludes and Nocturnes that the Sandman was released from his captivity in the twentieth century and yet here he is in the dream of a fourteenth century traveler suggesting that he is weak from imprisonment. As the title suggests whole story occurs within one of the "soft places" of the world, where the realms of dream and reality intersect and where history and fantasy interact.

The remaining story, A Parliament of Rooks, is more of a collection of shorter stories than it is a single story. Daniel Hall, the infant son of the previously introduced Hippolyta Hall, wanders into the dream realm and runs across Matthew the Raven and then Eve before being taken to visit with Abel. While Abel is busy getting everyone tea (and getting Matthew a decomposing rat), Cain shows up and everyone begins to tell stories, or in Cain's case, a mystery. The stories told by Eve and Abel are self-referential - Eve's story is about Adam's three wives and Abel's is about how he and Cain came to live in the dream realm (and features Dream and death as children), while Cain's story concerns a gathering of rooks and seems to explain why it is called a "parliament". The mundane nature of Cain's story contrasts with the mythic grandeur of Eve and Abel's, but because it presents such a tantalizing secret it still resonates, at least until Abel spills the beans, leading to Cain's somewhat predictably murderous response. The tale illustrates the cyclical nature of dreaming, these figures in the dream realm are the stuff of legend, both the source of dreams, and then as the subject of dreams. Myths are created by our dreams, but then they influence our dreams, changing the myths, resulting in a perpetual cycle of feedback.

The whole of Fables and Reflections feels like an interlude between larger stories. Each of the short tales says something, whether it is commentary on the nature of political power or discussions of the intersection between family and legend. Given that this is a collection of Sandman stories it should be entirely unsurprising that they focus on how our dreams shape us, and in turn, how we shape the world as a result. And although this volume is more or less just a link between larger stories, what it says about the connection between our myths, or dreams, and our reality. But Gaiman also shows how dreams don't follow our normal understanding of time, giving us glimpses of myths completed before he actually tells the stories of those myths. By frequently telling the stories out of temporal order, and by ignoring the mundane constraints of distance, Gaiman gives the entire series of stories a jumbled dream-like quality that intensifies the moody and atmospheric effect of the stories themselves and the characters who inhabit them resulting in a volume unified by its commentary on the nature of dreams themselves.

Previous book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You
Subsequent book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 7: Brief Lives

Neil Gaiman     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, August 12, 2013

Musical Monday - Lasers and Feelings by The Doubleclicks

I'm going to Indianapolis on Wednesday to attend Gen Con. While there, I will be going to two concerts as part of the Con, one to see Five Year Mission perform their Star Trek themed repertoire of songs, and another to see my favorite geeky girl band the Doubleclicks perform their songs celebrating Dungeons & Dragons, apostrophes, velociraptors, and falling in love over modern poetry readings and playing Magic: The Gathering. I love both bands for their wonderful nerdy music, but on the whole, I think I may be looking forward to seeing the Doubleclicks just a tiny bit more.

Lasers and Feelings, like Nothing to Prove, is from the Doubleclicks' latest CD and serves as its title track. The song tells the story of an ordinary person in love with an evil supervillain. In some ways, the story in this song is a somewhat twisted love tale that is more or less the flip side of the twisted love tale told in Jonathan Coulton's Skullcrusher Mountain. As with all of the songs by Angela and Aubrey, Lasers and Feelings is a joyous celebration of nerdity, and the video is a perfect match, especially at the end when it turns out that the terrible villain is actually Angela.

Previous Musical Monday: Fireflies by Owl City
Subsequent Musical Monday: The Mystery's Gone by The Doubleclicks

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Friday, August 9, 2013

Follow Friday - Port 119 Is the Default for Unencrypted NNTP Connections

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Wonderland's Reader and Girl in the Woods Reviews.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Back to school. Create a reading list for the imaginary English Lit class you’ll be teaching this semester.

I'm going to teach a class that consists of nothing but the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin. Why? Because there needs to be a class that does this. And because I can't think of a better way to spend a semester than teaching the works of one of the best authors of the twentieth century. There are some people (mostly on the troglodyte end of the spectrum) who think that women cannot write good science fiction, and many more people who think that science fiction can't be meaningful literature. Le Guin proves both of those contentions wrong. I have never read a Le Guin story that disappointed me, although I have read many that challenged me. Her stories talk about gender, identity, what it means to be civilized, what it means to be wealthy, what it means to be poor, what it means to be happy, and so many more topics. The course would start with The Dispossessed, move on to the first four books of the Earthsea series, and then tackle Four Ways to Forgiveness, The Compass Rose, The Word for World Is Forest, and The Telling before finishing the semester off with The Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness.

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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review - The Kicker of St. John's Wood by Gary Wolf

Short review: In a future United States political correctness runs amuck, the U.N. has teeth, and a band of football players try to save the country.

New NFL rules
The U.N. rules the U.S.
Wild-eyed diatribe

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The Kicker of St. John's Wood is a political diatribe that bashes the reader over the head with the wrongness of political correctness, the evils of the U.N., and the shadowy shibboleth of the evil liberal conspiracy against the Bill of Rights. While the book makes some decent points, it would have been more effective if it had not been so heavy handed with what little message contained in the story and not been so dominated by the almost unhinged paranoid hysterics those points were packaged with.

And the message is delivered with punishing blows: The wrongheaded U.S. President is named Malpomme (literally "bad apple" in French). The evil U.N. agency that is driving the encroachment on liberties is abbreviated UNSAINE. The characters are generally caricatures or straw-men: Jayesh (a British born place kicker of Indian ancestry) is interviewed by a reporter in the initial chapter who turns her story about him into a hack job about how he is denying his third world heritage. His girlfriend Ashley is writing a dissertation about how football is run by patriarchal Christian fundamentalists, but is convinced to give up her feminist views (and Ph.D. dissertation) by Jayesh's arguments and, of course, a healthy dose of his manly penis.

The central plot device of the early portion of the story is the NFL's mandate to have a female player hold for Jayesh in the Super Bowl and the announced mandate to make all professional sports leagues 50% female in five years. The woman turns out to be nice and not very athletic, and of course when she gets into the game she is horribly injured. Why a nonathletic woman is chosen to be the first female NFL player is left as something of a mystery - reality demonstrates that there are plenty of strong, fast, and tough female athletes in the world, many of whom would fit in perfectly well on a football field. But since having such a player show up would ruin Wolf's wild-eyed polemic, we get a woman who would rather be doing her nails thrust into the action. The game was also supposed to be the site of a new announcement from the President and the U.N., but that is disrupted by Sam, a secondary character, who is immediately arrested on charges of "aggravated racism" and deported to France.

Jayesh and another player (the afro wearing Thelonius) try to help, are drawn into political shenanigans and thwarted at every turn by evil and seemingly ubiquitous U.N. agents, until the President announces (in effect) that the U.S. Constitution will be suspended and elections will be conducted in accord with the U.N.'s mandates. Things get worse and worse, with the two players and their girlfriends finally holing up with their coach in his desert ranch until finally a civil war breaks out.

The political commentary is very heavy handed, which makes the insightful points in the narrative less than convincing. The book portrays the U.N. as some sort of super efficient and powerful organization, able to intimidate governments and suppress news it doesn't like. The least believable element of the story was that news outlets served as gatekeepers for information to such an extent that if no one picked up a story it would be forgotten - that's an element that might fly in a book published fifteen or twenty years ago, but now the internet is simply too pervasive, and not accounting for it makes the story just not believable. The news about Sam's railroading would burn up the blogosphere whether or not any actual news organization ran the story. One must assume the author is either not aware of the internet (which seems unlikely), or simply not playing fair with his narrative.

Some of the ideas contained in the book are mildly interesting - the dangers of political correctness run rampant, the sometimes unwise nature of racial and ethnic quotas and so on. But the portrayal of these elements is so over the top that any reader who is not already on the lunatic fringe is likely to collapses into laughter resulting from the unintended comedy. The book is also intentionally humorous at times, and does a decent job at portraying the ineffectiveness of the U.N. at aiding third world nations, although that kind of undercuts the assertion that the U.N. is somehow an incredibly effective organization that has agents everywhere and controls the fates of industrialized nations. On the other hand, consistency is rarely a hallmark of political diatribes from the lunatic fringe, so this sort of internal contradiction is not surprising. Annoyingly, the enemy is mostly faceless and apparently ubiquitous (although Wolf does try to set up one U.N. official as the locus of evil, but he's too much of a "behind the scenes" operator for the reader to fix upon). In the end the text simply attempts to brow beat the reader into agreement, and the harangue wears thin.

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review - Alternating Worlds by Gary Wolf

Short review: The war between the cultured and the hoi polloi is fierce, and the chosen battleground is artwork and human limbs.

Replicating cultures
Amputating limbs

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Alternating Worlds is a science fiction novel with a point. Not a very good point, or a point that is particularly well made, but a point nonetheless. Subtler than The Kicker of St. John's Wood, and a better book, this book sets culture against cultural relativism in a fairly effective and entertaining manner.

The story follows Rohde, an art dealer and expert on the "extractionism" style, starting with his dealings with the isolated and bizarre world of Gladius, the cultural destruction of his home world, and his ultimate attempts to strike back at his enemies. Gladius, it turns out, practices the "alternance cycle" in which all old cultural periods are aped by the populace in order to uncover the ultimate truth - that all truths are equally valid. The trouble is, each cultural period must be replicated perfectly, and in accordance with the calculations of the "Alternance Committee", even if that requires individuals to be maimed, disfigured, diseased, or killed. All individuality is subordinated to the alternance cycle.

As long as they remain on Gladius, the Alternance Committee is odd and annoying. Unfortunately, they don't stay there. First by military conquest, and then by cultural conquest, the Gladians overwhelm their enemies, apparently because they believe the entire region of known space must be made to follow the alternance cycle for it to work. The idea of a cultural takeover is interesting, and the battlefields of the book are the museums, symphonies, and publishing houses of Cyrus, Rohde's home world. The cultural icons of his world are progressively undermined by a populist movement that smears and denigrates the accomplishments of genius in favor of extolling the "unsung heroes" who really did the work - the drunk carpenters who supposedly scribbled the foundations of extractionism, the brutish laborer who was abused by Schulmann, and so on.

The book gets off to a slightly rocky start, with some fairly clunky passages in the first few chapters, but the writing improves as the story gets going. The main problem with the story is that the attraction of the alternance cycle is not really explained. Exactly why the populace of Cyrus jumps into the "denigrate the artist" mode is simply taken as a given, with half-hearted explanations - even those who are supposedly cultured are swept up by the movement to equate industrious but ordinary labor with the products of genius, and to tag the creative geniuses who made those products as deviant and perverted. The novel is clearly intended as a political critique of modern liberalism, but the alternance cycle is so unlike anything that appears in reality that the political commentary falls flat on its face and simply makes the author look just a little bit ridiculous.

As a result, the story is somewhat one-sided, presenting at best a caricature of crticism. We are clearly meant to side with Rohde in his attempts to defend his culture against the relativism espoused by the Gladians, and we do, but there is no real reason given for those lining up opposite Rohde to do so. As a result, the dénouement (which narrowly, and thankfully, avoids a deus ex machina) is fairly obvious - so obvious that one ends up wondering why Rohde and his allies (supposedly the intellectual elite of their planet) didn't think of it sooner.

In addition, like The Kicker of St. John's Wood, the opposition simply comes off as too all pervasive and stifling - every time the protagonist does something, he is foiled, to the extent that for much of the book, he simply gives up. Unstoppable conspiracies may sound interesting, but it turns out, they really are not. Although the position the novel takes on the issue of cultural relativism is one that I sympathize with to a modest extent, and the idea of a war fought by means of cultural annihilation is interesting, the lack of any real explanation of the attraction the protagonist's opposition has for their position prevents this book from rising above the ordinary.

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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Review - The SnarfQuest Graphic Novel by Larry Elmore

Short review: Snarf sets out to try to gain riches and fame. He has a collection of adventures and finds both.

The zeetvah king dies
Snarf heads for gold and glory
Befriends a robot

Full review: From 1983 to 1989, Larry Elmore wrote a comic strip of Dragon magazine called SnarfQuest, the tale of Snarf, a hapless zeetvah who sets out to finds riches and glory in the name of laziness. Eventually, the demands of producing a completed strip every month, when coupled with his other professional obligations to paint book covers and other artwork, became too much for Elmore to keep up with, and so he stopped drawing and writing the strip in the middle of an ongoing story line. In 2002, Elmore compiled all the existing strips together, and produced The SnarfQuest Graphic Novel, giving fans of the original comic strip the opportunity to read all of Snarf's adventures yet again.

Aside from a very brief one-page introduction by Elmore giving a little bit of background about the original run of the strip, the contents of the book more or less just reprint the original strips, complete with teaser boxes at the end of each "issue". The strips are presented in the same black and white format as they were in the original run, and contain no new panels or other content. If you have a sufficiently large pile of old Dragon magazines that you have the original print run of the strip and you are happy reading them in that format, then this volume is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, you missed an issue or two, or you never read the original run, or you just like having all of your SnarfQuest in one handy book, then this is a great compilation to have on your bookshelf.

The story itself is just as funny as ever. Snarf is a zeetvah, a snout-nosed creature with huge bat wing-like ears. At the opening of the book, Snarf's tribe's leader has died, and per their traditions, the zeetvahs will select as their new leader the zeetvah who manages to collect the most treasure and performs the most heroic deeds in the following year. Snarf reasons that if he just works hard for one year and becomes king he will be able to kick back and cruise for the rest of his life. With this in mind, our hero sets out to make himself a fortune in the outside world, resulting in a collection of absurd but always hilarious adventures as the fundamentally inept, cowardly, and somewhat dim-witted Snarf heads straight for any situation that promises riches and easily or safely obtained glory, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Though his efforts begin with an inauspicious start - Snarf steals a gemstone from a seemingly friendly passer by by convincing him that Snarf is a crazed killer - he quickly gets into more trouble than he bargained for when he attempts to infiltrate the evil wizard Suthaze's tower. Snarf seems to routinely bite off more than he can chew as his greed and tendency to exaggerate his own prowess lead him to get in over his head, at which point Snarf usually tries to run, fast-talk himself out of the situation, or, if worst comes to worst, actually act heroic. His adventures lead him to tangle not only with Suthaze, but also a dragon that thinks he's a duck (and later doesn't think he's a duck), a giant, and another evil wizard named Gathgor. Along the way Snarf also has to deal with a journey to the perpetual pit, a smitten princess and her prejudiced father, and a condition that makes him believe he is a bee.

As fun as the conflicts are, what makes the story interesting is the bizarre cast of characters that Snarf befriends in his journey, from a human prince transformed into a rat, to a beautiful woodland sorceress, to a dopey mercenary named Dorf, to the displaced robot that Snarf thinks is a weird wizardly knight with odd rituals and who he calls Aveeare because he can't pronounce the robot's real name VR-X9 4 M2 Galactic Probe Government Issue Robot. And there is also the insanely dangerous beast of burden that Snarf purchases named the gagglezoomer and its accompanying control mechanism that turns out to be a death leech. And finally, the beautiful and startlingly immodest Teleri, who Snarf falls in love with (which isn't much of a surprise, as Snarf falls for any pretty girl that he happens across), but who also seems to eventually fall for Snarf. All of these companions are allies after a fashion, and provide Snarf with help in his quest, but more importantly they also provide the story with a lot of humorous misadventures and misunderstandings.

A little more than halfway through the book the original story ends, which probably would have been a good place to end the strip. However, it was wildly popular among readers of Dragon magazine, and Elmore decided to continue Snarf's adventures. First Elmore wrote a short ten page interlude that featured Snarf and Teleri seeking adventure five years after the events of the first part of the book and getting sucked in to the travails of a small village that is plagued by a werewolf. A plan involving forming a rock band goes awry, and a follow-up plan involving making silver bullets for Snarf's pistol also fails, and in the end Teleri saves the day, as usual. The story is funny and silly, which is exactly what one expects from a Snarf story.

After this short side story, Elmore settles in for another long epic, as the pressures of being king get to Snarf and he decides to pass the reins of leadership on to another and join his friends on an adventure to the stars in the rescue ship sent for Aveeare. This second extended adventure transforms the setting from a fairly standard (albeit somewhat zany) fantasy world to a fairly standard (albeit, yet again somewhat zany) science fiction world. Unfortunately, this story line is not nearly as interesting or enjoyable as the first, feeling like something that was simply tacked on out of a sense of obligation. There is some decent development with respect to the relationship between Snarf and Teleri, and there are plenty of silly hi jinks involving bar fights, a hunt for gold, some native creatures who want to eat Snarf's pickup truck, and a race that features the gagglezoomer.

By 1989, the pressure of producing a monthly strip had burned out Elmore, and he decided to cut the story short. As soon as the characters made their way back to Snarf's home village, he inserted himself into the comic and explained that he was cancelling the strip. And just that abruptly, the run of SnarfQuest in Dragon magazine came to an end, and so does this volume. Even though the heroes return to find that a revitalized Suthaze is threatening to conquer the world while assisted by the magically enhanced death leech, that plot is simply left unresolved, and Snarf's adventures were put on hold. Elmore later picked up the series and printed new installments first in Games Unplugged, and then on his own website, and then in Knights of the Dinner Table. But none of these continuation strips are contained in this book, and as a result, the reader is left hanging in the same way fans of the original strip were.

With the exception of the rather unsatisfying inconclusive conclusion, The SnarfQuest Graphic Novel is a fun compilation. There is, after all, a reason that it was one of the most popular regular features that appeared in Dragon during the magazine's heyday. Snarf is, for all his faults, a fundamentally likable character and he, along with his supporting cast of misfits, provide plenty of humorous and entertaining adventure from the story's opening pages right up to the abrupt end.

Larry Elmore     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, August 5, 2013

Musical Monday - Fireflies by Owl City

This is a story about my son and the song Fireflies. I'll preface it by saying that I like the song, and a love the video. The collection of old toys that magically come to life is brilliant and fits the song perfectly. But that's not why this is a Musical Monday selection.

The reason is that this song plays a part in a good memory I have of my son, and I don't know when I'll be able to make more good memories that he is involved in. In 2010 we were in Hilton Head, and with my siblings and their families, we went to see Shannon Tanner, a local children's performer who plays mostly goofy songs that appeal to younger audiences while mixing in family friendly humor. He is, for want of a better word, a "safe" entertainer for parents vacationing in Hilton Head to take their children to see.

Tanner has a portion of his show in which he invites kids to come up and sing something or tell a joke. As his core audience tends to range in age from toddlers to preteens, the range of songs and jokes chosen varies wildly, and sometimes the results are something less than desirable. After his sister had gone up to sing a song, my son decided he wanted to take the stage as well. And this was somewhat problematic, as he was at the age where off-color humor was, in his opinion, the funniest thing ever. And, well, he kind of had an established track record of taking song lyrics or jokes and transforming them into something less than family friendly.

So we told him he couldn't go up and sing. But he promised he'd do something up there that wouldn't make everyone in attendance sorry that they were related to him. And he went to the stage and sang Fireflies. And he sang it beautifully. There are times when your children impress you in ways you simply didn't expect. This was one of those times. I don't remember anything else about that night or really anything else about that trip to Hilton Head. But I remember him standing next to Shannon Tanner and singing this song, and I remember being proud of him.

My son is now fifteen, and in addition to the usual adolescent surliness, he is angry with me for a collection of other reasons, most of which are beyond his control. And because of this, he's shut me out of his life. I miss the son who surprised everyone and sang Fireflies and made me proud of him.

Previous Musical Monday: Nothing to Prove by The Doubleclicks
Subsequent Musical Monday: Lasers and Feelings by The Doubleclicks

Owl City     Musical Monday     Home