Friday, August 18, 2017

The Secret of Ma

I edit with an axe. I hack and hammer, and when I'm done there's red everywhere.

I have to: I'm wordy.

No doubt there are a few people who've asked for my "suggestions" in the past who find the results alarming. Hopefully not discouraging, though.

But developing a habit of ruthless editing isn't the only way:

Monday, August 14, 2017

KAIJU! The Game

It’s summer vacation, the kids are all off school (sorta - this is Japan after all: the only really close the schools for about 5 days) and parents everywhere are wondering what to do with them. This gets worse when it’s so hot and humid you hardly want to move.

Enter the kaiju!

To deal with my own enforced monkey-wrangling I devised the below. Feel free to share and remix.

Kaiju: The Game

  • 49 square tiles with markings on one face and blank or another marking on the other. I just used empty food boxes, but a cooler variant would be to paste or print an old city map on one side of card stock and pebble-scape (ahem, rubble-scape) on the other, then chop into squares.
  • A handful of 6 sided dice
  • A bunch of counters (these will be defenders)
  • 1 monster figure for each player - needs to be small enough to fit in on tile (better yet, use big tiles - beer mat size would be sweet)
  • Pack of playing cards, jokers removed (see variants at the end)

Set up
  • Lay out the tiles in a 7x7 grid, map side up.
  • shuffle the cards and deal each player 5 cards
  • each player selects a monster by some means that prevents arguments.
  • Optional: practice monster noises while the adult gets his or beverage of choice.

Determine who goes first by lot (jan ken/rock paper scissors is both easy and in keeping with the theme)

Start with the first player and proceeding clockwise as follows on each player’s turn:
  1. Draw one card from the deck.
  2. If you have a run of 3 or 3 of a kind, you may play it as a ”buff” (see cards below)
  3. Replace any cards played from the deck.
  4. Move your monster 1 tile in any direction horizontally or vertically (no diagonals - on the first move of the game choose any unoccupied edge tile. Monsters must attempt to move)
  5. When your monster enters an unoccupied tile, flip it over to the rubble side.
  6. If the tile is occupied by defenders (see 9 below) or another monster, you must fight:
    1. Each monster in a fight gets 2 dice.
    2. A tile with defenders gets 1 die per defender
    3. Monsters may spend buffs (discard them immediately) to gain 1 extra die per buff spent.
    4. Both sides roll dice and compare results as follows:
      1. Line up the dice in descending order.
      2. Compare the highest dice: the highest roll wins. On a tie defender wins.
      3. Compare each die in turn. Each die with no opposing die counts as a win.
      4. For a monster to monster fight, the monster with the most wins gets the contested tile, and that player may move the opposing monster into any unoccupied adjacent tile (diagonals allowed) or off the board if the contested tile is at the edge. Monsters pushed off the board are eliminated from the game (see variants below)
      5. When a monster attacks a tile with defenders, if all defenders are eliminated the monster moves into that tile. If any defenders remain the monster does not move.   
  7. Discard one card (you should have 5 cards at the end of your turn)
  8. The next player proceeds from step 1.
  9. Once all players have gone, work together to place defenders: Any tile that has a total of 5 defenders  this turn has all defenders removed and is flipped back to the city side. Each rubble tile with 4 or fewer defenders gains 1 defender counter.
  10. Start another round! Continue until 1 kaiju rules the city!

using a standard playing card deck, you can make “buff” sets as follows:

Run: a set of 3 cards of the same colour (red/black) in sequence - ie 4,5,6 or 10,J,Q. Aces may be either high or low, so could be placed as A,2,3 or Q,K,A. If more runs are desired try K,A,2!

3 of a kind: 3 cards with the same face value:

Jokers variant 1: jokers can be included as wild cards as normal,

Jokers variant 2: jokers can be used as a special “flying” power - discard a joker during the move phase of your turn to go to ANY other tile on the board. Fight as usual if occupied. If the tile has defenders and you fail to defeat them all, move to any adjacent and unoccupied tile instead.

Jokers variant 3: joker in hand can be played as a “secret buff” when fighting.

Secret buff: If you have a valid buff in hand you may play it at the beginning of any fight to gain 1 additional die.

Eternal war: When your monster is eliminated, discard your hand and all buffs, but on your next turn draw 5 cards and bring your monster back on any unoccupied edge tile.

McGuffin: One tile has a special marking instead of rubble. If you capture the tile your monster now has the treasure and must return to the edge to win. If you are eliminated, the treasure returns to the treasure tile to be captured by someone else.

Powers: Specific card combinations could be designated as powers.rather than buffs. Alternatively special city tiles could be prepared that have power-ups or specials on them, to encourage more exploration of the board.



Thursday, May 18, 2017

Broadswords & Blasters: Story Reviews Part 3

To get some background on the whole magazine see my post here. For an explanation of my thinking for these reviews, and for the first 2 stories see Part 1. Likewise, for stories 3 and 4 see Part 2.

Enough blather! Reviews!

Saturday Night Science
by Michael M Jones

Pulp: 1/7     Slick 3/7      Purple: 3/7      Tech: 5/10

Michael M. Jones has a theatrical background that has (mysteriously, perhaps) led to his active participation in a variety of magazine projects, both as editor and as author. View his full (and impressive) bibliography here. He also has quite a range of titles with his name on them available on his Amazon author page. Mr. Jones can be found online discussing writing and books at his reviews blog Shroedinger’s Bookshelf or on Livejournal, and also reviews SFF for the Tor blog. Naturally he is also active on social media such as Facebook, for those who like to chat with authors.

From the “real life weirdness starts at a fan convention” premise through the deliberately zany (and ironic?) treatment and on to the extreme cardboard cut-out characters it’s hard to fathom how this ended up in a magazine supposedly devoted to “pulp with modern sensibilities.”  But I confess: I really didn’t like this story, so I may be biased.

To be fair there’s a standard SF trope at the core: the protagonist’s (only) foil is a wildly dressed “mad scientist” type she met at the con - and whose get-up turns out not to be cosplay but actual evidence of her origins in a parallel universe. But the “big idea” is not really engaged at all, and merely serves as the backdrop of what I found hard to see as anything but an abusive and ultimately unbelievable romance[1].

In the space of just a few pages we go from what appears to be a con party hookup bondage scene to “let’s travel the universe together while I hold this gun on you.” The breakneck pace of the relationship would be hard to manage in a longer work with more space to develop the characters internally, but in a story so short - and with other moving parts to develop - the end result is impossible for me to swallow.

The problem of course is that we’re given nothing to hold on to.

The first person narrative style helps quite a bit for the protagonist, Camille, but even with her I found it very difficult to get engaged. She has a name, and we learn a bit about her and her life as the story progresses, but we get nothing to justify her decisions or even, really, to make us cheer for her. Part of this of course is that ultimately she does nothing - which means there’s nothing to cheer for. But mainly, and despite Mr. Jones’ quite engaging, upbeat voice in the narration, I found she barely manifests at all in the story.

This feeling is even worse when, on reflection, I realise that her one moment of agency before the flip-flop conclusion is essentially an accident.

As for Daphne the interdimensional traveller - well, her development is if anything worse, though admittedly not as potentially offensive as poor Camille. Again, Mr. Jones seems to have a good hand with energetic dialogue and when Daphne speaks we get the sense of an engaging, upbeat woman who brings a dash of zany to the table. And if you noticed a bit of repetition there, you’ve already sensed my problem: Daphne read to me as essentially Camille in mad scientist cosplay.

On the other hand, Daphne is at least active - and through Camille’s description and engagement with her we do at least get to learn a little more about the situation and its implications. We don’t get much, but at least for me it was enough to shift the story from “animatronic mad scientist’s lab diorama” into “alternative Doctor Who fanfic” territory[2] - it did seem to me as though there was a wider universe out there beyond the story, and the potential for more adventures, but sadly Mr. Jones declines to offer any glimpses of them.

OK so I didn’t like the story – a big part of that is probably personal – but perhaps the most frustrating thing about it was the fact that Mr. Jones does seem to know what he’s doing. As mentioned, the tone is upbeat and engaging, and on top of this the story itself tumbles from moment to moment at a quick pace that kept me reading - and hoping for deeper engagement with the characters or the idea. Likewise, he doesn’t burden the story with detailed “still life” description: he’s very economical and evocative in describing Daphne’s equipment and the events, and does so mainly by presenting them in motion. There is real skill here, and a good handle on the dynamism that would make a good pulp story pulse, but it never really seems to go anywhere.

It’s unfortunate and frustrating that the skill Mr. Jones demonstrates at this level of the story doesn’t translate into the wider scope of character and - more importantly for a piece this short - plot. The placeholder characters are forgivable in a short, fast-paced story like this one. It really does take a master to pack rich characters into such a small space. But it’s not even so much that he dropped beats or was out of tune, Mr. Jones doesn’t really give us any plot at all.

There’s an awful lot of noise and fury in this story, but in the end it signifies nothing: the frenetic action never congeals into a coherent shape.

Grade: F

Island of Skulls (part 1)
by Matt Spencer

Pulp: 4/7     Slick: 3/7     Purple: 2/7     Tech: 5/10

Matt Spencer is another established author with an impressive bibliography (in fact, this magazine has done well to attract some experienced talent). He’s known for his Deschembine trilogy (The Night and the Land, The Trail of the Beast and the forthcoming The Blazing Chief (Damnation Books)) but his bibliography includes a wide range of books and anthologies in which his stories appear. Most are also available on his Amazon author page. He bills himself as a writer of hard-boiled and horror fiction on his Facebook page, and he can also occasionally be found lurking on Twitter as @MattSpencerFSFH.

This one is more firmly in pulp territory than some of the other stories in Issue 1 of B&B, but is unfortunately to some extent missing some of the motivational elements - replaced by others - which makes it feel a lot more like a rough-edged 70s era story than something from the pulps’ golden era.

There’s an effort to build richer imagery via more extensive description, which is great, but in the first half of the tale this translates into awkward doubling of adjectives and other words that occasionally had me grinding my teeth. It was clear what Mr. Spencer was aiming for, and he seems to achieve greater control in the second half - just illustrating how much better the story could have been with careful editing, which is doubly frustrating since the story definitely has promise:

Mr. Spencer starts fast in the middle of the action and gives us a good look at the main players early on. The story moves ahead to follow Tia and Ketz as they investigate strange goings on and discover a troubling connection to a past disaster. At each stage more of the world - and the situation - is revealed to us, and the exposition was skillfully done, without much reliance on info-dumps. Though some of the early description is awkward, as mentioned, the story certainly provides a clear view of the landscape and enough handles on the two protagonists to get a good grip right from the beginning. It’s not quite clear who is meant to be the main character, as the author hovers between the two in terms of interior view, but his intent will no doubt be clearer in Part 2 (due in the next issue) - asked to guess, I’d say that despite the early focus on Ketz either Tia is the primary[3] or that the aim is for a kind of shared place at the very center of the story. Despite preferring Tia myself, the second possibility is intriguing as I’d like to see how Mr. Spencer handles such a challenging approach.

Overall, the story arc given to us in Part 1 is well timed and energetic, driving along from scene to scene in a manner that really reflects the earthy flavour of the characters and setting. I personally found the rather rough tone and language of the dialogue off-putting at times[4], and while Mr. Spencer did a good job of pulling me along it really weakened my ability to like the characters. I get what he was trying to achieve, but it came across as perhaps trying too much. This kind of heavy handed dialect building really works best when there’s some purpose to it - in this case it was simply jarring.

One puzzling element to both the characters and the plot, though, was the question of time. Not the time in the tale, though: the deeper time of the setting. Mr. Spencer is careful to build his exposition mainly into dialogue and description, but at times it’s very difficult to grasp history.

As an example, the initial impression given of the characters is that they are teens - still building up to adult skills and responsibility but with more independence and ability than children[5]. However, as is made very clear later in the story they are also hard-bitten veterans of a conflict some years ago. How old are they, really, and what is their place in society? It seems as if this would have important consequences, but these points are very slippery.

Similarly, the timing of the war, the expansion of an empire that seems like an important force lurking in the background, and even the history (and geography) surrounding the weirdness being investigated all hint at much longer periods of time than the timelines presented in exposition either explicitly or as a consequence of logic given what we are told.

The whole world feels compressed, with things somehow both closer together and further apart than they ought to be.

Still, despite the stylistic flaws and the occasional “huh?” moments inspired by apparent temporal scales this is a solid story, and Mr. Spencer does make me feel that something mysterious is afoot that requires my attention in Part 2. That alone, really, is a pretty good win.

Grade: C+

[1] This was a difficult story to read, because all I could think about was how horrifying the opening scenario was even if clear consent got them there.

[2] An improvement, even if it’s not exactly glowing praise.

[3] A good choice if so, as I think she is definitely the more interesting character.

[4] I’m not prudish about language, and I suppose it was realistic for the sort of setting we find in this story, but sometimes “realism” needs to be set aside.

[5] And this is a logical choice for this sort of story, as it gives the characters the ideal combination of competence and naiveté (and of freedom and constraint). 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Broadswords & Blasters: Story Reviews Part 2

Check out an alternate cover that was considered for this one!

To get some background on the whole magazine see my post here. For an explanation of my thinking for these reviews, and for the first 2 stories see Part 1.

Enough blather! Reviews!

The Executioner’s Daughter
by R. A. Goli

           Pulp: 1/7   Slick: 4/7   Purple: 3/7   Tech: 7/10

R. A. Goli is an Australian author of speculative fiction, who can be found online at her authorial homepage here, or if you prefer to stalk authors more personally she can also be discovered on Facebook. Her profile (and other sources) informs me that she mainly writes horror and horror erotica[1] and the tomes listed on her Amazon profile certainly backs that up. However, her profile also informs me that she writes fantasy and science fiction – and I’d say that The Executioner’s Daughter suggests I’d be interested to see more from her on that front.

To be frank, there is nothing pulpy about the story, and nothing particularly compelling about the characters - we ultimately learn next to nothing about them other than their various involvement in execution. But simply saying that obscures what is actually a well-written and interesting tale.

I found the premise quite interesting: what does happen when a hereditary profession falters because of the combination of cultural change and the facts of progeny? For that matter, the actual challenges raised in Ms. Goli’s narrative are well developed and while the solution is relatively obvious to the historically inclined it is cleverly engaged.[2]

One curious element of Ms. Goli’s story is that although there is some exposition - necessary to provide us with the background we need to understand Felian’s situation and provide the crisis with sufficient weight - we actually learn very little about the world in which events take place. Indeed, Ms. Goli leaves certain details such as the consequences of failure until quite late in the story, which changes the tone considerable and reduced my sense of risk by making it feel like a late addition simply to head off “no big deal” shrugs.

As a slick piece it works quite well, and is actually an amusing twist on the “girl in a boy’s world” conceit. Unfortunately Ms. Godi’ isn’t really literary-rich enough to make it atmospheric, and the length precludes much depth to the examination of the questions posed – though the consequences she does explore are interesting enough to keep attention. I confess I would have liked to see a bit more “crisis” rather than the smooth flow of problem-solution Ms. Goli gives us, but in fairness this story isn’t really long enough to support that.

The quick hint of romance at the end is a nice touch, though, and makes the package remind me a bit of Margaret St. Claire – but I really would have liked to see more “exploration” of the ideas and the world.

Likewise, the narrative style in such a short piece made it hard to get a good view of the characters or sense their urgency as the crisis is met and dealt with.

Given the constraints of space, this might have been better achieved via a more active narrative style or more dialogue.

But for all my complaining this is a.solid story, despite being quite different from what is apparently Ms. Goli’s usual fare – and that is actually quite impressive. This story does work well as slick, albeit one too short to really get a grip on the “big thinks” or the characters. I suspect Ms. Goli is a name to watch in the future.

Grade: C+


Pension Plan
by Dusty Wallace

           Pulp: 3/7  Slick: 2/7  Purple: 1/7  Tech: 6/10

Dusty Wallace is findable online at his blog, or stalkable on Twitter if you’re not satisfied with his rate of updates on the blog. Mr. Wallace has published in a fairly impressive variety of anthologies viewable on his Amazon author page, and also in such publications as ARES Magazine, Flapperhouse, and Bete Noir Magazine. For more on Mr. Wallace himself and his thoughts on fiction, you can also check out this interview with him by Martin Ingham.

This piece is a fairly straightforward heist story, with the twist that it takes place on an abandoned mining colony and involves Mr. Wallace’s own alien race, the Cransh.

It starts strong, in the middle of the action - or at least the situation. Immediately it’s clear that it will be hard to call the situation or the characters “pulp” in the heroic aesthetic sense: the protagonists are there taking advantage of the mob’s MO to score big, and they’ve started the deal with a massacre. It’s obvious nobody is innocent, and there’s really no moral direction here as we are firmly in noir territory.[3]

The story is presented in a first person narrative - again a signal that noir sensibilities will be required - and Mr. Wallace makes a good effort to embed key facts about his world and his characters early on in both the narrative and the characters’ banter that will play a part later on. Indeed, there’s a piece of foreshadowing that bears fruit at the end.

The banter is perhaps a bit too strong for my liking, however – it’s clear in the first page or so that Mr. Wallace’s intended take here is going to have a bit of humour to it.

I had the feeling through the whole piece that it was heavy with irony and sly jokes, and Mr. Wallace seems to have taken “pulp with modern sensibilities” to mean taking a fairly standard formula story and branding it with unnecessarily puerile conceits and obvious parody. The universe in which he places the action is painted in comical extremes, from the bizarre alien-human melding to the economics to the frankly silly twist[4] that decides the crisis.

This isn’t entirely unreasonable, I suppose: if he was taking his model from the mid to late 40s, especially the second tier (and lower) pulps of the era, a kind of devil-may-care attitude

Technically, Mr. Wallace has a good hand with the pacing of action and I found the way he built the world up in the first third of the story quite deft. This could have been a nice, tight, noir-flavoured heist but for the choice to poke fun with what are ultimately not particularly clever jibes – though I’m pleased to say that the way he set up the final twist was actually quite clever, even if it fell on deaf ears with me.

I’m left thinking that the author has promise but that perhaps his effort here is marred by over-focus on the shallow end of the pulp pool. Not an uncommon ailment, but disappointing to see in an ostensibly pulp-oriented magazine. The technical skill he shows in pacing and the action scenes, not to mention the deft way he builds the world around his characters without resorting to too much exposition make me want to give the story a better score, but sadly I just didn’t like it as much as I could have.

I would love to see what would happen if Mr. Wallace took the assignment over and wrote something more serious though - I imagine he might produce a tightly-written noir planetary romance: and that would be awesome!

Grade: D (reluctantly)

[1] No, I’m not quite sure what that is either.

[2] I’d say this puts the lie to her “claim” that although she’d like to say she writes science fiction “simply putting a robot in it doesn’t make it so” – taking the solution that’s obvious to people in the know and engaging it in an interesting way is pretty much the formula for good scifi of some varieties.

[3] I hasten to say that’s not a complaint, simply an observation that the range of what the editors (and authors) were thinking of as “pulp” includes some other aesthetics that I would have excluded. But chacun son gout I suppose – and anyway, I like a good noir story so let’s see where this goes.

[4] There’s that chacun son goût thing again – I’m sure there are plenty of readers who would find it clever, I’m just not one of them, unfortunately, and the joke left me flat.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Broadswords & Blasters: Story Reviews Part 1

Way over on the other side, I put together an overview review of the new SFF magazine Broadswords and Blasters.

Briefly, despite being initially sceptical I was pleasantly surprised: there’s an interesting mix of story styles here, though the quality does vary a bit. There are a couple of winners here, a number of solid if unremarkable pieces, and (though it pains me) a couple of duds. In all, a pretty respectable showing for the first issue of an experiment, especially considering how little money they had to throw around at authors.

I don’t know if I’d really call the magazine “pulp” – with modern sensibilities or not – but there are a few stories here that either make the sorting pile or come close. It will be interesting to see how they develop it.

Now, on to the reviews!

For each story, I’ve utilized a highly complicated biological algorithm processor[1] to assign a score in four categories:

Pulp is my sense of how well the story matches the pulp aesthetic as I’ve discussed here and elsewhere. At the top of the scale you’d find hell-for-leather action tales like Doc Savage, REH’s less introspective heroes, ERB and the like.

Slick is my sense of how much “big idea” the story engages – ie how “high brow” it is in content. Here we’d see things like Asimov, or Larry Niven’s “engineering puzzle box” stories score well. Likewise stories with a strong underlying political or moral message like Octavia Butler’s work.

Purple is my sense of the richness of the style – how literary is it? Vance (especially later works) definitely scores well here, as would Dunsany’s 51 Tales.

Tech is my sense of how well the story is put together – how are the beats aligned? Does the story flow? Does it feel complete? How well does the author apply technique and form?

For various reasons I’ve chosen to use a 7 point scale for the first three, and a 10 point scale for the last.

And finally I’ve melded all these scores together with just the basic “did I like it” gestalt in the deepest recesses of my mind to give each story a letter grade – not objective in any sense of course, but perhaps a measure more accessible to others.

So here we go:

Skin Deep
by Nicholas Ozment

            Pulp: 4/7    Slick: 5/7    Purple: 3/7   Tech: 6/10

Nicholas Ozment is a contributing blogger over at Black Gate, and in fact his most recent post there was a promotional piece for B&B. He has been publishing in SFF since 1998, with a bibliography viewable at the isfdb, including his 2010 novel Knight Terrors: The (MIS)Adventures of Smoke the Dragon (Ancient Tomes Press – currently out of print). He has been interviewed by Every Day Fiction back in 2008, and (very) occasionally makes an appearance on his Livejournal, but appears to be otherwise internet invisible – a shame!

This story is a basic moral vehicle rooted in the selkie mythology of the Northern British Isles: the actors are warriors travelling north to find the legendary ilsilke, who are reputed to rise from the icy waters to bathe in the sunlight, and to be supernatural beauties. Our heroes are clear early on, both because of the narrative focus on the young Kenrin and Haralt, and because of the nearly comical contrast painted between them and the unpleasantly rough usurai sword masters. There are some interesting ideas here, and the author has done a creditable job of building up hints of the wider world without resorting to ponderous exposition. Unfortunately the beats of the tale seem off, and I had a strong sense that there is more story here than really fits in such a short piece: ultimately we’re not really given much reason to like the protagonists other than for the fact they’re not the grizzled thugs travelling with them North. And lest we mistake their nature, the thugs are - in addition to being arrogant, boastful drunkards - given several opportunities at “puppy kicking” early on, both in dialogue and action.

Even with the implied attempted rape, the signals of villainy aren’t over the top - but there’s too much in such a small space, and the author’s effort to make the bad guys bad overshadows any sense of good I might have had from the heroes. This feeling was worse at the climax: the story promised selkies, and it delivers. It also hinted at a wry discovery, and it delivers there as well - though it did perhaps telegraph the exact discovery a bit loudly. But this is just where the story really stumbles.

The two young sur apprentices[2] were positioned as being really equal to the veterans right from the beginning, so of course we anticipate the eventual confrontation - and the nature of the tale and the usurai’s moral evil tells us who will win. This is why it felt so unfortunate and disappointing how brief and anticlimactic Mr. Ozment’s treatment of that battle turns out to be. Not only that, but he undermines the affair by clawing away a heroic victory with deus ex machina, and then topping it off with the double punch of a reward that feels undeserved and a “deep” moral to the story - which itself fails for me exactly because the heroic dimensions have been undermined.

Still, though the heroes suffer from shallow treatment the story hits the heroic pulp notes in one respect: they are painted as clearly moral superiors to the veterans (even if I think the balance was ungainly) and indeed at the crisis point it is the decision to stand by principle despite the risk that pushes the story forward.

There is definitely a strong story here, but it’s obscured by the author’s focus on other angles and the effort put into amplifying the moral conceit from which the tale springs.

Grade: C


Dead Men Tell Tales
by Dave D’Alessio

              Pulp: 4/7    Slick: 2/7    Purple: 2/7   Tech 7/10

Dave D’Alessio has an impressive line-up of titles under his name on Amazon, a number of which have encouraging ratings on goodreads. Remarkably, his entries on isfdb include only one of his stories, which makes it tough to really see the full range of his work. He also has a healthy social media presence (if you can call Facebook healthy) including a regular interview by fellow author Martin Ingham,  an “interview” with the protagonist of his book Yak Butter Diaries , and a face-to-face with Dr. D’Alessio himself on aliens on Author Talk.

This story starts briskly with a murder and goes downhill (for PI John D. Arbogast) from there. It’s not immediately clear whether it’s a real SF mystery or just a standard detective tale with a few verniers and flashing lights duct-taped on for looks.

Turns out it’s half-way between.

Let me start by mentioning that one point that took me rather by surprise, considering the stated goals of the magazine, was the rather bluntly racist depiction of the Triad thugs that play a part in the mystery. This seems a strange choice in context, but perhaps the same things that led me to overlook it got this story past the editors.[3]

In true pulp fashion the story starts with action, and at every stage the protagonist - our undoubtedly square-jawed gumshoe - is at decision cusps. While the actual technology is only vaguely relevant Dr. d’Alessio does work it in skillfully and very naturally, and the beats of the scene presented work very well. He focuses very closely on the protagonist’s actions and to some extent the technical details however - with the consequence that we learn relatively little about the universe in which the story takes place. And one consequence of the first person narrative form - which of course is de rigeur for a story like this, and a perfect tone for the tale - unfortunately gave me little to hold on to when it comes to the protagonist.

Indeed, all I really saw to sell him was his evident dislike of organized crime and his almost-witty narrative style (which actually is quaintly noir in tone). This is unfortunately compounded by two problems.

The first is most obvious through the continual crises: we are simply given no reason to believe in Arbogast. There’s no history, no context, none of the usual autobiography that comes with this sort of first person account - not even the sort of side comment like “when I was in the colonial marines” which hints at experiences and can render later competence believable.

The second actually explains all the rest: the story ends abruptly in a way that suggests it is actually a fragment of something larger. As a longer piece, we might expect a bit more meat, more feeling for the setting (and more opportunity to see the Triad trio as more than cringe-worthy caricatures), and more reason to root for Arbogast.

To be honest I think that I’d read a noir gumshoe “pocketbook” that expanded this story.

Grade: B (and could easily be a B+ in a longer version) 

[1] My gut.
[2] This little fantasy language conceit – the relation between usurai and sur – actually goes a long way toward hinting at the nature of the broader world, and is really quite clever.
[3] I’ll note as well that the depiction is also a fairly de rigeur over-the-top cyberpunk gangster archetype, which fits with the technology depicted, and the noir style. As such my response to the approach may be more knee-jerk, again related to the shortness of the piece.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Get Pulp in Your Teeth

Image result for trump juicero
There’s been a lot of talk lately about a “magical” device that delivers “perfect” juice, and is destined to revolutionize the way people drink juice in just the same way Keurig revolutionized coffee.

I have no idea about this device other than what has been in the news and so will refrain from more than a brief comment about money[1] and coffee[2] but I will use it as an excuse to talk about pulp.

There has been a lot of talk about the pulp aesthetic in fiction among the people in my circles. Not merely in the Pulp Revolution community over on G+ but elsewhere as well. Not a great deal of what is being said is particularly innovative – I suppose this is a natural consequence of the fact we’re mostly discussing styles of writing that are at least a century old – but a great deal of it is interesting, and exciting enough to have triggered a little nest of activity in writing and publishing.

This isn’t the first time a revival of the pulp aesthetic has started up – in fact it seems to have been coming more or less at 5 year intervals for a while now – but I think this may well be the first time I’ve seen it actually getting traction in a big way. This might be an illusion caused by the fact I seem to have been sucked into the center of the maelstrom, of course. My fingers are crossed that it’s more than that, and to be honest I think the circumstances are quite different now than they have been in the past.

One reason the pulp vibe is coming back, I think, is technological: the last big wave of enthusiasm[3] seems to have petered out largely because it was too soon to take advantages of the various ebook and archive resources currently available.  

With the meteoric  rise of self-publishing platforms such as Amazon, Smashwords, and others – with the explosion of highly affordable print on demand services in the last few years – with the emergence of alternative financial tools such as the various crowd funding platforms – and with the growing ubiquity of social media communication platforms – it’s easier than ever to get a conversation started, to generate enthusiasm, and to keep the momentum rolling.

I think this is enormously significant.

When you look back to the golden age of the pulps, you see a slowly building momentum that – by the time of pulp’s peak in the 30s and 40s – had generated a truly incredible range of magazines. And when I say incredible, I mean incredible: take a look at this photo of a street-side magazine display from 1935.

The market was bulging with magazines. Significant publishers and little fly by night operations were all jostling for space on the shelves. Offset printing technology was getting cheaper, and advances in paper manufacturing were making printing a much cheaper industry than it had ever been before. Small-shop printing houses sprang up all over the place, and taking advantage of this new infrastructure people threw money at new magazines as business speculation or even just because what they wanted to see on the shelves wasn’t there yet.

And that’s not even considering the underground publishing industry.

The Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA) founded in 1937 is the oldest fan APA for science fiction, but the APA model goes back into the 19th Century and there were little APAs all over the place. Many of these were hobby oriented, and quite a few were focused on some variety of creative work. But what happened in the early decades of the 20th Century was an enormous shift in thinking that added to the boiling industry.

Certainly, many fanzines of the era orbited around fans who – by some means – had access to one of the smaller shop presses and were able to buy, negotiate, wheedle, or simply steal time at the press when it wasn’t in ordinary operation.  But this still limited the number of people who could get in on the activity.

APAs already existed, as I mentioned, but for the most part they operated via carbon copy or laborious retyping – naturally, this significantly limits the range and size of audience.

But hectograph and mimeograph technologies were plummeting in price as well, and this made a huge difference: suddenly, a fairly normal middle-class fan could reasonably buy or borrow a new or used mimeo or hecto and churn out dozens of copies of a ‘zine. Suddenly, the conversation wasn’t limited to the people an enthusiastic fan could talk to in person, or the handful he or she could contact by carbon copy letters.[4]

Even before the establishment of FAPA suddenly connected fans were talking: through the letters columns in print magazines, in letters to what we might call semi-pro magazines (the fanzines being produced at pro presses), and now in hectoed and mimeoed pages being churned out in people’s cellars and garages and kitchens.

Overnight, the conversation went from being an excited murmur to a veritable roar.

Why is this significant? Because I strongly believe we are looking at a similar kind of sea change in publishing.

E-books have been around for a while of course, but over the last few years it has been getting easier and cheaper to produce astoundingly professional products that are available not only in e-book format but also in print, thanks to POD services. Approaches and techniques that were once sneered at as “mere vanity” are now viable business models, particularly for what amount to fan works with attitude.

Combined with crowd funding to ensure a regular flow of capital even in cycles where breaking even is difficult just about anyone can notice a gap in the market, conceive a way to fill it, and launch the product in the course of just a few months.

Look at the success of Cirsova Magazine, now going into its second year.

Look at Bryce Beattie’s StoryHack, which went from a call for submissions at the beginning of March to being nearly ready for its first issue to go to print in May.

Look at the explosion of collaborative anthologies.

Look at the growing number of blogs and the increased volume of chatter about self-publishing on social media.

As always happens when there’s a technological “singularity event” bringing together interest and enthusiasm with a sudden decrease in the cost of artistic expression, we’re seeing the boom beginning right now. This is nothing new: it’s happened every time a new technology makes the headlong dash into everyday commodity level prices. It happened with hector/mimeo in the 30s, it happened with 8mm film in the 60s, it happened with cassette tapes in the late 70s and 80s, and it’s happening now with the convergence of e-books and the tools to produce them.

And the thing is, #pulprevolution is really just one facet of the explosion, the one I happen to be seeing most clearly because of location.

It’s really been bubbling for the last few years with the erotica/romance e-book boom, with the extreme horror movements, and of course with wave after wave of amateur book publication in nearly every genre imaginable.

This brings us back to the juicerino or whatever the stupid thing is called:

It's not just a metaphor for the over-produced slicks, it's also a metaphor for publishing more generally.

Sure, I could pay too much for an electric motor and some rollers, and slap in a squeeze-bottle of processed juice. Or I could just grab some fruit and veggies - maybe even out of my own garden - and smash the juice out of them myself.

Yeah, I might get pulp in my teeth. I might even get a healthy dose of caterpillars along with my kale smoothie.

But man will it taste good!

#pulprevolution - not just good, but good for you!

It’s an exciting time, people. It's a time when if you long for a certain flavour of fiction then it’s probably time to heed the clarion call:


Get pulp in your teeth!

Join the revolution!

[1] And the fools from whom it is soon parted.
[2] And the terrible sins that the unwashed commit against it
[3] See The Cimmerian Blog (shuttered since 2009), the Grognardia blog (likewise since 2012) and the Robert E Howard Foundation (still active, and – significantly – actively producing their own imprints of REH’s work)
[4] Carbon copy letter circles were certainly common enough – Lovecraft’s is of course the most famous.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Thoughts on Appendix N

Full disclosure: In January I began contributing a column on vintage SFF and genre literary history for the Castalia House blog, at +Jeffro Johnson ’s invitation.  The below is my own thoughts on Jeffro’s Appendix N project. I receive no payment from CH, nor have I been asked or encouraged to promote Jeffro’s book beyond a friendly thanks from the author for what little I’ve done to support his project and his hope that I’ll talk about it. 

And I will. 

I’ve been engaged with what has come to be called #pulprevolution since long before it became a thing. My ongoing mission[1] has been to learn more about the roots of SFF, and to bring back some of the amazing aesthetic that was dominant in the pre-Campbell era. Part of that is a matter of developing my own writing – to learn from proven classics how it’s done. Part of it is to delve deep and learn about the social and cultural contexts in which my mentors[2] were working.

So, when I stumbled on Jeffro a couple of years ago[3] imagine my surprise – and pleasure – to discover that he had decided to undertake a project:

He wanted to know more about the roots of one of his favourite games – D&D[4] – and since the 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide[5] contains a convenient list of books to inspire and inform adventures in a fantasy world he decided to start there.

Over months, he searched out books and stories, many of which are actually quite hard to find today[6], and many of which he had never even heard of.

He read them.

He was blown away.

What he found in those pages turned out to be more than just an exercise of “oh, that’s where that module came from” or seeing the image of some obscure mechanic. It was stories he’d never seen before, stories better than he was expecting.[7] I was familiar with a lot of what was on Jeffro’s reading list already, but many of them were things I’d read long ago – I started following his quest mainly because I was curious, but soon got swept up in his bubbling enthusiasm. It was simply invigorating to see these stories through his fresh eyes.

This book - Appendix N - is the product of his exploration, and I think it’s a great read if only for the sheer energy it projects and some of the fascinating connections he discovers between works you might never have thought related.

Now, Jeffro came to some conclusions that I found puzzling, and others that I disagree with. But there was a thread there of ideas that resonated with my own, and areas where I could whole-heartedly agree:

Gary Gygax’s “Appendix N” is a fascinating time capsule of classic science fiction and fantasy works that goes a long way toward providing a snapshot of what he was thinking about as he worked on what ultimately grew into one of the most popular pen and paper role-playing games of all time. The significance of this list – which spans the literature of seven decades[8] – goes far further than simply the inspiration for an enjoyable pastime, however: it’s a window into the past of SFF that affords us a view of a particular literary aesthetic – one that has, in many ways, simply been forgotten by print publishing.[9]

There’s a lot to love in the crumbling pages of old science fiction and fantasy. Of course, there are things that society has moved beyond as well[10] – we are better for it – but even when voices from the past shock us with things we regard as ridiculous or even unthinkable today[11] there’s an aesthetic present from the early days of Argosy and Weird Tales that resonates in the best of the adventure writing of the 1940s and 50s, and in the best remembered works of the New Wave revolution in the 1960s and 70s.

Heroism[12], the struggle between good and evil, the triumph of civilization over barbarity, the wonder of exploration – these themes drive stories forward by appealing to something fundamental in the nature of humanity. Stories that incorporate these themes engage us, draw us closer to the protagonists, make us care what happens next, celebrate when the challenge is overcome – or mourn when the hero fails. This is the common thread that runs through Gygax’s list, and that pervades the early role-playing games.

This observation on the themes found in enduring stories is nothing new of course – it’s something that writers and storytellers have known forever. In the Western canon, these themes can certainly be traced back at least as far as the Epic of Gilgamesh after all. Where SFF is concerned the key is that in the beginning it was an entirely new realm in which authors could explore these themes, experiment with new ways of engaging them, and build edifices on the shoulders of giants. As explorers in a new space, classic pulp authors were in constant conversation with one another – not only within SFF, but across pulp genres. What we might now view as derivative works were in fact the collective effort of these authors to try again and again to find the right way to fit their bold new ideas together.[13]

Things changed somewhat with the coming of the Golden Age of Campbellian “hard” SF.[14]

The gothic fantasies, weird tales, and planetary romances of the previous era slid from the limelight as the industry embraced a new aesthetic that had a very clear vision of science and engineering as the foundation of the future – an echo of the techno-utopia flogged by Wollheim and the other Futurians around the time of the first Worldcons.[15] The pulp ideals never faded entirely however, and you can see their influence clearly in the work of Campbell’s best known protégés.

Still, the richness of the legacy faded somewhat, despite the continuing work through the 60s and 70s of several authors who dated to before Campbell’s revolution.

I think that this fading, and the impending loss of SFF’s core, is one of the things that triggered the New Wave revolution of the 60s and 70s.[16] That grand effort did a great deal to re-invent the richness of the pre-war era pulps, and led to a series of fascinating new authors with works that – I think not coincidentally – also ended up on Gary Gygax’s list. Sadly, the revolution faltered[17], and by the time the 1980s rolled in things were changing again. In fact, this seems to be the watershed where the legacy of the pulps truly began to be forgotten.

The 1980s and 90s saw the birth of cyberpunk after a decade of gestation, and at the same time it saw a dramatic shift in mass market publishing that echoed the mega corps of the cyberpunk idiom: a concentration of SF publishing in five Houses Major[18], and a shift from smaller bookstores to franchise megastores. While there are some excellent writers who flourished in this period, it’s hard to see the rise of franchise series and massive, unending epics as anything but a cooling of the creative engines of SFF as it adapted to the reality of market forces.

From here, we fast forward to the e-book revolution and the crumbling empires of English language markets divided between the Five Houses: technology has definitely pushed the balance back to some extent: publishing is easier than ever before, and the new publishing media make it possible to bypass anyone who aspires to be a genre gatekeeper.[19]

I don’t think there is any debate to be had over whether there are excellent modern SFF authors: There certainly are.

And the best of them are as skillful with words as any of the classic greats – though there are also of course many less skilled, just as in any literary era. Likewise there should be no debate over whether the pulp era, which forms a large part of Gygax’s list, was universally golden. There were duds, and plenty of them; this should hardly be a surprise when considering the dizzying array of periodicals that were scrabbling for text to print each and every month during the 20s, 30s, and 40s. But somehow, over the last thirty years entire dimensions of the enormous wealth of “scientifiction” and strange tales have been pared away to leave little history and even less memory of the roots of modern SFF.

This, frankly, is a crying shame.

Fortunately, while the Great Houses of publishing have moved ever further from the core aesthetics that launched and sustained the genre from the early years of the Twentieth Century to explore new thoughts and styles of SFF, the core aesthetic has been kept bubbling in other venues:
The comics boom of the 90s and early 2000s certainly owes something to the love people have for wonder, adventure, and heroism. Advances in special effects and computer generated imagery have also brought us an amazing variety of SFF entertainment on both small and large screens. Moreover, video games have exploded as the cost of delivering ever more realistic experiences plunges, making it more feasible and more satisfying to not just read about heroes, but to live them.

Two worlds of SFF diverged in the decades after the New Wave, but now interest in the parts that had been largely forgotten is growing – and it’s interesting that this is happening just as the technologies that supported the divergence of SFF are themselves converging. Technological convergence has brought us a wealth of amazing new things. The resurgence of interest in older SFF offers the potential for another convergence, this time between the core aesthetic that made the pulp era great and the good things that have been built in the current era.
The vigor and freedom of e-book publishing and other electronic venues echoes the explosion of the pulps themselves in an era of rapidly decreasing publishing costs. In this environment I think the potential for yet another revolution in SFF is enormous, but to make it happen we will need to recapture the essence of that era of exploration and experimentation. And to do that we need to sift through the layers and rediscover jewels that have been lost and forgotten, then work those jewels into the treasures of today.[20]
Just imagine a newly invigorated world of SFF that combines the heroic aesthetic of the classics with the rich language and diverse voices of the present! To my mind, now is an ideal time for such an experiment, and now is an amazing time to be rediscovering forgotten classics.

[1] Seriously had to resist the urge to call it a 5 year mission – but who likes limits!

[2] People like Jack Vance, A. Merritt, Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore – and yes even Howard and Lovecraft. But also le Guin and Norton and Moorcock and Heinlein and Philip K Dick and Laumer and…oh the list goes on forever!

[3] I was actually looking for gamers, and hooked onto him because he was posting stuff about Star Fleet Battles, a game I miss playing!

[4] D4 thieves or nothing!

[5] I just realised I haven’t typed that all out in years.

[6] Interestingly, the zeitgeist must have been bubbling in the back of his mind, because quite a few of the works on that list have mysteriously become available in digital editions in the last year or so.

[7] Because for some reason the popular image is of the pulps as low quality crap on every page, when in fact there were some excellent authors at work as well and those are the ones whose work endured.

[8] For context, think about this: how many people today have a passing familiarity with fiction spanning seven decades? This alone tells us something about the lack of attention older genre fiction gets today.

[9] That’s not to say that there is something fundamentally wrong with the aesthetics that have emerged in the decades since of course – just an observation that a particular era seems to be completely invisible today, and this seems puzzling.

[10] And things we’re still struggling with, and new things that in a decade or two’s time we’ll look back on with shame, I suspect. Such is progress.

[11] Particularly on issues of race and gender.

[12] I’m speaking of the heroic in terms of the literary device, not in terms of thick-thewed warriors. Briefly: the idea that the protagonist must face some challenge to ideals, and must (in part) be successful by staying true.

[13] And actually, there’s little more fun for a bookworm than to stumble on the different takes on a single idea by authors writing at the same time and obviously “arguing” with each other over the best way to write it. Or maybe I’m just strange?

[14] Though with Campbell, apparently “hard” SF also includes telepathy and dianetics…

[15] A social engineering rallying cry that was taken up in slightly different form by Damon Knight, Harlan Ellison, Joanna Russ and others in the 60s.

[16] Surely it’s no coincidence that Moorcock, one of the engineers of this revolution, gives explicit credit to pulp master Lester Dent (of Doc Savage fame) and his formula for adventure fiction in his own formula for writing a novel in three days?

[17] If the detractors are to be believed, in part because of the pessimism of the plots, in part because they were perhaps too experimental in their move away from the Campbelline tradition.

[18] Gratuitous Dune reference.

[19] Or rather, by making it easier to put your own work in front of them returns the gatekeeping power to the readers – where it belongs.

[20] Resisting the urge to continue the Dune analogy and refer to spice instead of jewels…