Star Wars: A Galaxy of Subgenres

It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that I am a Star Wars fan. For as long as I can remember, the adventures of Jedi, smugglers, X-Wing pilots and weird alien heroes has enchanted me. It isn’t the kind of fandom that involves editing Wookiepedia or memorizing every species homeworld (not that there is anything wrong with those things) but rather a simpler, joyous kind of fandom that had me tearing up when I first heard the theme played in a theater in 1997 when the Special Editions were released. I first saw Star Wars sometime in the early 1980s on Betamax tape and had been re-watching the trilogy and (perhaps more importantly to my love of Star Wars) gaming in the universe by way of West End Games role-playing game. And, of course, there were comics and novels and video games.

The question as to how and why Star Wars managed to become such a powerful pop cultural force based on one ground breaking but ultimately indie sort of film is both interesting and probably unanswerable. No doubt many have tried and much has been written by both experts and amateurs alike. I won’t both injecting my voice into that discussion. Rather I want to talk about what it is I find so compelling about Star Wars and how it informs the direction of my own creative energies.

In brief: Star Wars, while representing a single milieu, contains within it many different subgenres of science fiction and fantasy. Just on its face, the original 1977 film is both a spaceships-and-laser-guns Science Fiction film AND a heroic journey, swords-and-wizards fantasy film. There are alien horrors weird enough to make H.P. Lovecraft proud as well as World War II ace combat. Lucas borrowed heavily from all kinds of film and fiction and so too did the people that followed him, from the earliest Marvel comic books to the current games and cartoons. Star Wars is inclusive, allowing it to tell different kinds of fantastical stories.

I recently finished listening to the audiobook of Battlefront: Twilight Company by Alexander Freed and was very impressed. this was hardcore military sci-fi in the Star Wars universe. The grit and relative realism presented in the novel juxtaposed well against the action-adventure melodrama of The Force Awakens. I don’t do reviews, but I will make recommendations: if you like Star Wars and you like gritty military sci-fi, Twilight Company is definitely worth your time. I could give or take the flourishes in the audiobook — music and sound effects, primarily — but they did not reduce my enjoyment. But more to the point, Twilight Company stands as a useful example for how Star Wars, while remaining fantastical space opera, became a successful vehicle for another genre. Like super hero comic books, Star Wars takes so much inspiration from so many other sources that it is a genre chameleon.

I like blurry genre lines. It is one of the reasons I am drawn to post-apocalyptic fiction, I think. Whether it is Gamma World, Thundarr or my own ReAwakened World, futuristic and unrealistic PA fiction is freedom to play with elements of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, westerns and more. Star Wars does that too, and very likely instilled that sensibility upon me (along with the aforementioned super hero comics).

My first novel Elger and the Moon is available for Kindle, Kindle Unlimited and in print from Amazon.

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Found Fiction: The Final Word

By The original uploader was Fredrik at English Wikipedia [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By The original uploader was Fredrik at English Wikipedia [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Found Fiction” is the name I am giving to old stories I find buried on my hard drive, Google Docs or elsewhere. Many are unfinished and nearly all are in first draft form. I write a lot of stories just sitting down and starting typing, with little or no idea what I am doing. That is a habit I am trying to break , by the way. In any case, some of this Found Fiction is worth sharing — not good enough to polish and try and sell, but perhaps there is a core idea I think worth sharing or I just like the way the prose came out.

 

This story is an End Of The World tale. I have written a lot of these — or at least started them. Because I obsess over what we — mankind — are and why we are here, I think a lot about what would happen if we went away, and how we would react to knowing it in advance. This story is a pretty perfect example of my thoughts on the matter, or at least what i find interesting enough to create a narrative for.

 

Note: this is the draft in its raw form, presented just as I found it. I do not remember when I wrote it.


Editorial: The Final World

 

In this, the last issue of the nation’s longest continuously published newspaper, we have dedicated tens of thousands of words to your stories. Over the last weeks, since confirmation of the impending Minefall Disaster (for which I must apologize, as it was one of our headlines that created the name that stuck), we have talked to you. We have talked to you online and over the phone and in the streets and in your homes. We believed it important to tell your stories at The End, to be preserved forever in a space age, diamond version of microfilm that hopefully one day some future (or even alien) civilization will find and decipher.

But yours were not the only stories we wanted to tell. From the time this issue hits the internet and the newsstand, you will have nearly twelve hours to peruse it. While we wanted you to meet the end with understanding for your fellow reader, we also wanted you to read the words of our greatest thinkers and our most beloved, and even detested, leaders. In these pages you will find the words of celebrity activists and Nobel laureates, presidents and prime ministers, religious leaders and scientific visionaries, even terrorists and despots. This is, after all, the final view of mankind, and here at least, we believe in telling the whole story.

Among all those voices, the mundane and the famous, there is one we know that you all, everyone in the whole world and anyone who might come in the future, will want to hear. We managed to secure an interview with that very person in his final hours last night, so that his words, his explanations and excuses, would also be preserved forever in diamond microfilm.

Some have suggested we not run that interview, that we should not give acknowledgement to the man that ended our entire civilization, perhaps our entire species. We here, however, chose a different option. If it is our jobs as journalists to tell all sides of the story, then we must be compelled to tell his, too, no matter how twisted or vile we might find them. By setting us on this path, by very directly bringing about Armageddon, this man, Tobias Hossler, has become the most significant figure in human history.

While everyone on Earth now knows the name Tobias Hossler, allow me to introduce him for those we presume to one day find this story: he was a genius in both technology and economics who built a multi-billion dollar company from nothing in the heady first decades of the Internet. Unsatisfied with mere bits and bytes, Hossler moved into the real world, first in commerce and research and development, and then into the energy sector and the global commodities trade. Even this was not too big for a man of his vision, and his final project, the one that would turn into all our Final Project, was to mine the Moon for its precious resources, turning the Rare Earth minerals that drive our technological society into Every Day Earth minerals with just a little push out of the lunar gravity well. Most impressively was this: he did it. To all our doom. A full biography of Tobias Hossler can be read on page 7.

What no one realized about Hossler wa that everything he did, every step he took on the ladder of success, was a step toward a most terrifying and nefarious goal. Hossler desired nothing less than the complete eradication of humankind from the face of the Earth, and he hatched a plan that would allow him to achieve it. However ridiculous that sounds, however Hollywood and Comic Book, it is true, and now, today, we all face down Hossler’s success. How he did it is unimportant (though we did detail the process on page 13). The real question is, and has been since it became public, “Why?”

There is no one better suited to answer that question than Hossler himself:

In his cell, the day before he was to be taken to the receive his lethal injection, I personally sat down with Tobias Hossler. We talked about a great many things, but it was only mere minutes before his death, that Hossler told me the answer to that question.

He said, “I don’t think it was any one thing that did it. But, even so, I remember this day in early 2011. I was in India, promoting our Asian Initiative, and a news story broke about the gang rape and murder of two fourteen year old girls on a train to Delhi. The thing was, it did not break in India. There, it wasn’t news, because it happened so often. It was all over CNN and the other American cable stations. The thing was, I realized it was only on the news there because the girls were white. They were British kids that got on the wrong train after a field trip.”

I asked him if he was destroying the world because two white girls got raped and murdered on a train in India. He scoffed at me. “Don’t be ridiculous. Like I said, that is just a thing I remember. It sort of cemented the realization of how bad we really are. Us. Our species, I mean. All of us. Not just in the abstract, but each and every one of us. Everyone, some time, thinks and maybe even does horrible things to one another. It is our nature. It is inescapable.”

Tobias Hossler says many more things about human nature, the human capacity for evil and whether the ultimate murder is somehow justified in the complete interview on page 25. I know there are some of you, many of you probably, who don’t want to sift through his diatribe and justifications. I don’t blame you. Sitting through it when it was coming out of his mouth was almost too much to bear.

I asked Tobias Hossler why he believed the bad in humans was so bad that it outweighed the good in us. He answered with this:

“At my heart, I’m a mathematician. I do the numbers. I actively considered all the joy and love and beauty in a given life. I realized that these things were precious because they were rare. If they were routine, they would not be worth cherishing and remembering. Once I realized that, realizing the corollary, that the vast majority of life was not full of love and joy and beauty, and much of it was filled with the opposites, was easy. No matter what we did, not matter how ‘good’ we made the world, we could not make it worthwhile. I thought about that and thought about it until it was keeping me up at night and driving me crazy.”

He smiles wryly here, like he knows what I wanted to point out. I resisted the urge and let him continue.

“In the end, the math wins. There is, and always will be, more pain and anguish and ugliness than joy and beauty. The net gain would always be bad. So I decided to solve the problem.” He laughed here, a genuine amused laugh, cold and terrible given the circumstances of the interview. “I had already started work on my lunar mines. It would be a small matter to keep the world in the dark and set a huge chunk of lunar rock into an Earth crossing orbit that could extinguish most high life forms, including, very probably, every human being on the planet.”

Tobias Hossler died precisely eight minutes after that. He chose to stop talking. We shook hands and I left his cell. I watched him up until the moment they took him from his cell to the death chamber. As far as I could see, he never once broke down and cried or prayed for mercy or any of the other common behaviors exhibited by the doomed.

It was part of my job to watch Hossler die. I can not say in good conscious that a part of me, the angry part that feels robbed of not just my future but the future of the entire human race, did not enjoy watching him die. But another part of me, deep in the recesses of my mind, sort of agreed with him. Yes, we would be dead and gone, and the world would lose much for that. But at the same time, no two little girls will ever be held down and brutalized, then murdered, by a group of strangers ever again.

As I hit “send” to get this editorial in on time to meet press time, I have somewhere around 13 hours to live. My wife and kids are in the living room, just a few doors down from this study, burning through every Pixar movie ever made. My brother and his wife are gone: they committed suicide with about 200 other people a week or so back. My parents died years ago. All over the world, friends of mine — and when you are a journalist and then editor for a paper like this one, you make a lot of friends in a lot of places — are preparing themselves however they see fit to meet their End, and perhaps their Maker.

Just like you all.

In these last moments, I suppose all I ask is this: prove Tobias Hossler wrong. Be good to one another.

Good bye, and thank you.

The World is a Phoenix: The Post-Post Apocalypse

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I love the Post Apocalypse. I love mutant bears with lasers coming out of their eyes. I love libidinous frog men trying to keep Rowdy Roddy Pipe down. I love spike covered muscle cars and psychic dogs and cross country treks in tricked out APCs and the rockabilly battles of Old Vegas. But as much as I love the post apocalypse, it is really all prelude, because what I really love is the post-post apocalypse: when civilization rises from the ashes like the titular mythical bird of this post.

 

Stories about the end of civilization are fun. Characters are given permission to go native and lose their inhibitions, and in the context of games (both tabletop and electronic) you are too. It’s cathartic, blasting mutants and zombies and cyborgs and mutant-zombie-cyborgs. But it is also ultimately limited: the world is dying and man is fading and no amount of weird super-science or gritty survivalism can change that. But when the spark of renewed hope appears, when it looks like the world might just crawl out of the crater, that is when things get interesting. I would contend that much of the best post apocalyptic fiction is actually post-post apocalyptic, because it is not about the End, but the New Beginning.

 

Let’s take for example a pinnacle of the genre: Fallout. Across many games and some tie-in media, the world of Fallout is celebrated as a perfect post apocalyptic story. Except it isn’t. From the very first Fallout game, it is a story about hope: can you find the water purifier chip and save your people. Along the way, it turns into a story about how new powers are trying to control the new world and usher it into a new age. That doesn’t sound like a whimper or a bang. Fallout 2 is more explicit in its metaphor, casting the player as an uncivilized tribal that enters and embraces the new civilization. By the most recent Fallout 4 you actually create, manage and preserve civilization in the form of settlements.

 

When post apocalyptic stories center around creating a new world order, abolishing the monstrosities of the past, reclaiming lost knowledge or otherwise building something new, they transform into post-post apocalyptic ones. Now, sometimes it is a bit of a bait and switch: The Walking Dead, both on the small screen and on the page, is a post apocalyptic story. it flirts with hope but ultimately smashes it with a baseball bat or devours it with a horde of the cannibal dead. The original Mad Max qualifies as well: there is no real sense that things are going to get better by the end of that film; they gangs will just keep fighting one another until all the gas is gone. Interestingly, The Road Warrior transforms into a post post apocalyptic tale just at the very end when we hear the narration of the feral boy grown into an aged storyteller: there is hope and a world beyond Max’s diesel powered Hell. Both Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road are, like the later Fallout games, more explicit in their embracing of the post-post apocalypse. Each of those films promises a future.

 

Narratives more easily recognizable as post-post apocalyptic are often set much longer after The End. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a recognizable example of this, if a bit less fantastical and weird science than much else in the genre. The tabletop role-playing game Numenera from Monte Cook qualifies, too, along with the upcoming (and awesome looking) Horizon: Zero Dawn Playstation game. In each of these examples, enough time has passed that the world is on its way to healing (although usually things are still much more primitive than they were prior to the apocalypse). Here the events of the apocalypse and subsequent rebirth serve as a stage for whatever drama is to follow, rather than the plot itself. The slate has not only been wiped clean but new social, political, religious and cultural structures have been built and these worlds often have similar features to second world fantasies. My own upcoming novel Elger and the Moon fits into this category.

 

There is an optimism in the post-post apocalyptic genre that makes me happy. I like to think that however badly we screw it up, humans are just smart, tenacious and lucky enough to avoid completely destroying ourselves. The struggle to survive is interesting but it is also exhausting, and with all the things in the real world that seem so hopeless sometimes, a dash of hope in my leisure-time adventures is much appreciated.

Elger Update: The Words, They Are Written

It has been a long time since I mentioned my novel Elger and the Moon, which I began in earnest a little over 15 months ago and finished the first draft of just less than a year ago now. Well, the last day of 2016 turned out to be the day I finished the editing process (which I did with the input of a good friend who is also a professional editor). That means the book is done!

 

Well, the words anyway. It seems there is a lot more work yet to be done. I hemmed and hawed over whether to submit it to publishers and agents, or to self publish. I finally decided on the latter. I am not especially good at selling anything, let alone myself, but I am even less patient and the prospect of waiting years to find a publisher and then see it published was too daunting. So instead I will cinch up my mantaloons and do what I need to to get it out there and seen. From there, it is up to, well, you guys.

 

Over the next weeks expect to see more news about Elger here as well as other things. Table top (or virtual table top) gaming is still a huge part of my life and I have much to share on that front, as well as thoughts and opinions of everything from the awesomness that is the newest Star Wars to my complete and utter spasmodic anticipation for Horizon: Zero Dawn. Long story short: expect more geekiness out of me than you saw in 2016, as well as a little of the promotion (which I am no good at).

 

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

The Dreams of Ruin: The Review

Truthfully, this will be more of an “overview” of The Dreams of Ruin by Geoff Grabowski than a review. Being friends with Geoof and having written for him, plus being a huge fan of the out there weird fiction science fantasy that populates the spaces in Geoff’s head between gardening and economics (no, really) I am not really qualified to give you an unbiased review of the book. That said, my goal isn’t to simply sell you the book either, except by telling you what it is, for real, and if that’s a thing you want to experience (and it should be) then go out there and get it. Or, well, click here.

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 The Dreams of Ruin (DoR) is a 261 page supplement for Labyrinth Lord and Mutant future, so called Old School Renaissance games published via the Open Games License by Goblinoid Games. As such, the book is compatible with most other old school rules systems, from Swords and Wizardry to OSRIC and, with a little more work, the likes of  Basic Fantasy and Castles and Crusades. It is not a complete game, but is also more than simply a setting book or an adventure. Aimed at high level (15th or higher) play it is designed to give epic heroes a run for their money.

 

Setting and Tone

The title refers to a setting element that can best be described as an inter-dimensional infestation or infection — a world ending seepage across realities that takes the form of a terrible, primeval dark forest haunted by corrupted beats, faceless puppets and hate filled unseelie Fair Folk. It is at once the villain of the piece as well as the location in which adventures take place, and due to its pan-dimensional existence it can contain elements from worlds of fantasy, science fiction and every permutation of the two together. this is the key component of the DoR from a genre standpoint: it hearkens back to the weird fiction roots of D&D, where elephant headed alien gods entertained Cimmerian barbarians and fantastic city states of the dead sat on the ruins of a billion year old Earth. In an era of fantasy dominated by Lord of the Rings and The Song of Ice and Fire on botht eh page and the screen, it can be easily forgotten that what we call the fantasy genre started out much more diverse and stranger than it appears today.

 

If you are familiar with Geoff Grabowski’s work as line devloper of White Wolf Publishing’s Exalted RPG the fusion of epic struggle and science-fantastical elements that dominated that game are here as well, though in a much more focused manner.

 

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The art of DoR is evocative of that same weird fantasy vibe. It ranges in both polish and quality but never wavers in tone. Whether it is a horned devil encased in power armor or a Puppet of Ruin (seen in the image above) massacre, the art remind the reader that this fantasy is different than the endless stream of heroic quests that have come before it.

 

In tone, the writing of DoR is generally conversational. The author addresses readers’ (presumably Game Masters) concerns directly, anticipating questions and alternating between readable prose and bullet points. He wants you to be able to understand this stuff so that you can use it in your game, which is often forgotten by game designers and authors. This book is full of strange ideas and non-standard fantastic elements and the author endeavors to get you to understand and accept those elements before moving on to the next bit. That said, it is not “simplistic” and the book does not appear to be written for the Game Master new to the craft or new to Old School games. it is safe to say that the author expects that your campaign reached the suggested high levels through actual play and therefore the GM knows how to run the game and incorporate new ideas.

 

Nuts and Bolts

The Dreams of Ruin is more than a descriptive book. The author develops a numbner of subsystems that provide concrete guidelines on how to implement the DoR into a campaign. The two most important are the rules governing how the “dark forest” manifestation of the Dreams works in play, and the rules for actually overcoming the threat of the dreams.

 

As stated above, the DoR are an infection in the world. Not surprisingly, that means it starts out small and grows in both size and virulence. In the parlance of DoR, the Dreams go through a series of Blossomings before they consume the whole world. The author lays out in meticulous detail how each blossing occurs, including tables for the size of the Dreams as they spread. In addition, each stage of the Dreams is given its own encounter tables and associated rules. It is possible using these rules to divorce the Dreams from its world ending aspects and simply use it as a very dangerous zone in the campaign world.

 

In addition to encounter tables, there are rules for the effects the Dreams have on those that travel through the forest (hint: it isn’t good) and the various sorts of entities and hazards that fill the Dreams. These are more than quick stat blocks. there is an ecosystem of terror here, with warring factions and dangerous interlopers — because of the inter-dimensional nature of the DoR, almost any sort of terror or treasure can be found within. Make no mistake, this is a truly high level threat zone and low level characters attempting to pass through, even briefly, will very likely meet a grotesquely cruel end.

 

The other major rules component covers how the player characters can actually cleanse their world of the infection that are the DoR. This is not simple task of killing a boss monster or casting a high level spell. Instead, a detailed process of research and experimentation is laid out. There are the usual assortment of new spells and magic items, but in order to “win” the player characters will have to understand the threat their world faces and then develop a method by which to counter it. It is a long process that engages players as well as their characters and gives the GM a built in system for motivating investigation and adventure. Most of all, the process is as spectacular as one would expect to be undertaken by PCs that amount to godlings themselves.  For example, one of the prescribed methods to stem the tide of the Dreams is referred to in the book as “Massive Geomancy.”

 

Final Word

The Dreams of Ruin is unlike anything currently on the market for Old School Renaissance games. It considerably expands the horizon of that particular subgenre of adventure game fantasy, inviting the audience into a world where slaying the dragon and saving the princess are barely more  interesting than doing the dishes. It embraces the weird fiction influence of the past while being wholly original. And while I will not give it a grade due to my personal relationship with its creator, I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who enjoys OSR gaming and wants to try something out of this world.

 

For a few more days as of this writing you can back the Dreams of Ruin Kickstarter here. You can even get a copy of the game here beforehand and then decide that Geoff deserves your support. If you want more information, read my interview with Geoff here.

 

Happy gaming.

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

 

I don’t normally do reviews on this blog, but I had to make an exception for Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s most recent summer blockbuster.  First and foremost, just to get it out of the way, the movie is AWESOME — 9.9 out of 10 (and the .1 is only deducted due to the pointless post credit’s scene, but I’ll get there eventually). The second thing to know is that GotG is not, in any way, a super hero movie. It inhabits the same super-heroic setting as the rest of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe, and given the presence of big-bad Thanos in the film, I am sure it’s plot will tie directly into said universe (my guess is it comes to a head in Avengers 3). Guardians is  a science fiction movie. More specifically, it is a big dumb Space Opera populated by planet destroying super weapons, ships the size of cities and mining colonies in the severed skulls of cosmic beings.

 

ALso, I suppose I should give a good old fashioned SPOILER WARNING: I will be speaking freely about plot elements from the film.

 

Guadians opens with perhaps the saddest introduction since Up! by Pixar: young Peter Quill is present when his mother dies of cancer and is so distraught by her passing that he runs away from the hospital. Until the very end of the film, this is not only the most powerful emotional moment of the film, but arguably the only emotional moment of the film. Even so, it serves to establish a powerful motivation in the character of Peter Quill/Starlord for making many of the decisions he makes in the film, without seeming overwrought or silly. I went to see the film with my son, who is about the same apparent age as the young Peter and found myself choked up at the idea of having to say goodbye to him in that way. It was simple but also powerful. That scene ends with the boy being abducted by an alien craft, and from there the fun begins.

 

I want to be clear about this: Guardians of the Galaxy is, above all, a fun movie. It is a big summer tent pole sci-fi-action-comedy with a budget bigger than the GDP of some countries. Nary a mention is made of how all these weird alien species apparently speak English as a universal language, nor should it. There is nothing in the construction of the civilization as we are shown it that makes any sense in a “hard sci-fi” kind of way, and this is a feature, not a bug. Space Opera has been stagnant in cinema since the original Star Wars trilogy, populated either by poor imitators (including the Prequel Trilogy, IMO) or deconstructionists. Guardians of the Galaxy embraces is big dumb space opera roots unapologetically and in doing so creates some of the best space opera ever depicted on film.

 

The other thing about GotG is that not only is it fun, it is funny. While appropriate for most kids in the 10+ range, it is just profane enough to give it an adolescent sensibility. The main character of Peter Quill/Starlord is a rogue through and through, including criminal activity and debonair womanizing, but both are merely suggested at. Much of the humor comes from the inherent ridiculousness of the characters — a walking and talking tree than can only speak three words, a cybernetic raccoon bounty hunter, a femme fatale assassin turned good, and a musclebound seeker of vengeance incapable of understanding or communicating in anything but the literal — but never turns any of them into a clown. There is no C3PO in this movie, and for that I am grateful. Secondary and side characters are treated with the same degree of quasi-seriousness: they are often quirky and strange, but never stupid.

 

The plot of Guardians of the Galaxy is fairly straight forward. Multiple groups are after an orb of (at first) unknown nature, including the main villain Ronan the Accuser (played with grandeur by Lee Pace, currently of Halt and Catch Fire) who has a grudge against the planet Xandar and wants to basically kill everything. People are willing to pay for the orb, thus driving much of the action by our “heroes” and it is eventually revealed that the orb contains an Infinity Stone. This is the part that is going to eventually bring Thanos to bear against the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in the context of GotG suffice it to say that Ronan really, really wants it — and manages to get it, in one of those interesting story decisions that happens in movies sometimes, which in this case totally worked. One of the nice things about Ronan as a villain is just how bad-ass he is, so powerful that none of the heroes pose a threat to him. Of course, they do defeat him eventually, with something that looks like a bit of deus ex machina if you weren’t paying attention at the beginning of the film, but even in doing so he is never diminished. I personally hate it when a villain is supposed to be extremely powerful, but just a little extra effort because they really really mean it by the heroes is enough to defeat the villain. That doesn’t happen here and it is refreshing.

 

The movie is fast paced and clever with big explosions and striking visuals. I saw it in digital, without either IMAX or 3D and never really felt like there were scenes foisted upon me to fulfill the ticket prices of those formats. Nonetheless, it was beautifully rendered and the different environments were given distinct visual styles (very important in space opera).

 

The only failure of the film, in my opinion, was the post-credits scene. Marvel has taken pains to train us to sit through the credits and expect something of value, or at least something clever and worth the three to five minute wait while scores of stuntmen and digital artist names scroll by. I won’t spoil the post credit scene for GotG, but I will say, “Don’t bother.” Once the scroll starts, you are free to leave and can Google the scene spoilers on the way home. It will be faster and you will miss nothing of value.

 

Overall, I think GotG qualifies as the second best sci-fi film of the summer (the winner is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — that movie is just great) and the best space-opera since Return of the Jedi. Go see it.

The Anti-Hero via “The Dark World”

The 2008 Paizo Publishing edition of “The Dark World”

 

On a recent flight from New York to Las Vegas, I finally had opportunity to read Henry Kuttner’s The Dark World. I have a particular appreciation for the science fiction, fantasy and weird tales of  the “pulp” era (though the edges are a bit fuzzy on that definition, as some works are in the vein but predate “pulp” by decades and some were published many years after the last of the trashy magazines either died out or evolved into more mainstream speculative fiction repositories). Like most modern fans of the fiction of that era, I am well versed in Borroughs and Howard, Leiber and Lovecraft, and a smattering of Clark Ashton Smith and “Eerie” horror comics. And like most, I am aware of a much broader list of names I might have read a story or two from an anthology, but otherwise ignored most of the less-than-giants of the era. Henry Kuttner (and his wife C. L. Moore) are among the names the come up most often on lists of “must reads” and so I purchased both The Dark World and Moore’s Northwest of Earth from Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories line. I am well pleased I finally went for Kuttner’s classic — which I chose for the flight on the merits of its relatively brief length; at three times the thickness, Moore’s Northwest book is reserved for the beach.

 

I will not give a full review of The Dark World here — there are more interesting things I want to discuss than it’s “quality” — but suffice it to say that the novel is a rollicking adventure yarn of weird science fantasy, prone to the overwrought language of many works in the same genre, and while it does display what we now think of as a particularly “privileged” protagonist (read: white, male, straight and six kinds of awesome), and there is a heaving bosom or two, it avoids the truly noxious racism and misogyny of some of its contemporaries. Overall, it is an enjoyable novel with a fast paced plot and an intriguing hero — or, anti-hero, which is what I really want to talk about.

 

Anti-heroes are difficult subjects. In their worst forms, they are an overly masculine authorial avatar, freed of moral constraints by a big gun, sword or gunsword. They are the worst kind of Mary Sue, because they serve to do little more than expose the power fantasies of the author. At the the other end of the spectrum are the tortured souls, the “Breaking Bad” Walter Whites of the world that force us to watch a decent man make the self destructive descent into immorality for all the “right reasons.” He is a bad man that was once good, or perhaps a good man who has to do bad things. Either way, this latter sort is the new vogue, while the former is more familiar to the readers of the pulps. Not surprisingly, the protagonist of The Dark World hews much closer to the former sort, but departs and reaches for the modern in a very interesting way.

 

What follows includes spoilers for what happens in The Dark World, so if the above have inspired you to read it, by all means bookmark this page and get yourself a copy. It is only a few hours’  read and you will be, at the very least, entertained for those hours.

 

The anti-hero protagonist of The Dark World is a man named Ganelon who hails from a parallel Earth where mutants reign. When we meet him, however, it is as Edward Bond, Ganelon’s Earth doppleganger who, suffering from PTSD and certain he his is being hunted by something, is transported into that parallel world. The novel does not take terribly long in establishing that a group of rebel freedom fighter Foresters, through sci-fi-sorcery, exiled their greatest foe Ganelon to Earth and drew Edward Bond in his place, making an ally of him. Ganelon, the real protagonist, believed he was Edward Bond until his allies in the malevolent Coven that rules the Dark World brought him back. Although there is plenty of  Lust and Greed and Pride to go around, it is Wrath that finally focuses Edward Bond into accepting his true identity as Ganelon — wrath against the treacherous Coven, so he joins the rebel Foresters disguised as Edward Bond anyway, aiming to destroy the Coven, betray the Foresters and rule the Dark World alone. There is also the small detail of Ganelon being “sealed” to a Lovecraftian horror called Llyr that truly rules the world and Ganelon’s desire to destroy that creature, too (since how could he rule with the real master still in power?) It sounds more convoluted than it is; Kuttner does an admirable job of laying out the twists and turns in a linear but fresh way so that while you are shocked at the moment of its revelation, you are not particularly surprised by it.

 

What is so interesting to me is that even after Ganelon has rejected Edward Bond in his own mind — and in the process truly becoming a protagonist, acting of his own accord rather than being manipulated by others — the mind and memories of Edward Bond never quite disappear. It is similar in a sense to moments of weakness for a character like Walter White, who remembers his old life and regrets the loss of certain elements of it, but in Ganelon’s case, it is all an illusion. Edward Bond is a false memory, a prison built in Ganelon’s mind, but even being so, adds some much needed balance to the otherwise too-vicious and one dimensional Ganelon. It is a sophisticated bit of character development by Kuttner, especially considering The Dark World is little more than a throwaway pulp science-fantasy novella. (I should note that it is known that Kuttner and Moore collaborated constantly even when they did not create a pseudonym for the purpose and The Dark World‘s complex and romantic aspects are often attributed to Moore’s input.)

 

The climax of the novel does an interesting thing, though it is not wholly unexpected. The same witch allied with the Foresters that originally exiled Ganelon and conjured Edward Bond summons the latter one last time for a battle in Limbo (which seems to be a purely psychic plane) between the two dopplegangers. Ganelon appears to win the day, breaking Edward Bond’s back, but this, it turns out, becomes Ganelon’s undoing. By killing Bond, Ganelon commits a form of suicide. The witch says that only someone who truly hates himself can kill himself ( a revealing perspective on suicide from the era, no doubt) which allows Bond to be ultimately successful. In the end, Bond is still exiled to the Dark World, but his has his Forester love (a pair among the various heaving bossoms) as well as a new world to build, now devoid of both Ganelon and the eldricht monster Llyr. This notion, that self hatred is the underlying weakness of an anti-hero, is a powerful and even sophisticated one. Kuttner posits, in this resolution to the tale, that hatred and rage are useful in achieving victory but ultimately they must be discarded for anything lasting to emerge. That there is no sequel to The Dark World, about the further adventures of Edward Bond, perhaps troubled by the re-emergence of Ganelon, seems to bear this out. With the tale done, Kuttner seems to be giving his final opinion on the subject.

 

The Dark World is a good example of pulp era science fantasy and is well worth your time to read it, especially given its brief length. More importantly, Ganelon/Bond as an example of an anti-heroic protagonist straddling between the old anything goes Mary Sue-ism and today’s tortured good men gone wrong makes for soem surprisingly complex writing given the genre and era.

Friday Flash Fiction: Lifepunk

Chuck Wendig of terribleminds.com throws out a flash fiction prompt on a weekly basis. As it has been a while since I have done my own Friday Flash, and the idea of creating an all new something-punk genre story appealed to me, I decided to give it a go.

 

So, without further ado, here is a brief story in the genre I call “lifepunk.”

———-

 

Sonny peered through the blinds. Blinds. What a ridiculously quaint furnishing. They were a throwback to an era before smart windows, when privacy and modesty were worshipped as gods, along with productivity and conformity. That they adorned these windows, his parents’ windows, did not surprise Sonny in the least. In that way, the blinds were a perfect example of everything he was fighting against, of everything he did not want, of all the old things that would not go away.

 

“It’s not going to work,” said Emil. He was pacing back and forth in the living room, between the wall screen and the blinds covered windows where Sonny stood. The wall screen was a more recent furnishing than the blinds, certainly, but still old enough to exemplify the technological and cultural atrophy Sonny despised — and feared.

 

“It will work,” said Sonny. He peaked through the slats again and this time he saw flashing lights. He smiled and reached for his belt where he felt the hard grip of the revolver. It, too, was quaint — quaint, antiquated, outmoded, ancient, positively antediluvian. It belonged to Sonny’s father, as well. The man had not changed, could not change, to the point of ignoring the law for over a century to hold onto this strange, murderous piece of steel.

 

Emil quickened his pacing and started to talk quickly. “It isn’t going to work. They are not going to do it. They are just going to tranq us and format us and then what? Nothing. That’s what. Nothing, forever.”

 

Even as the flashing lights grew brighter — the police flyers were descending, he knew — Sonny tore himself away from the blinds and his fingers from the revolver and he grabbed Emil by the face and kissed him long and deep and hard. Then, he said, “That is not going to happen,” and Emil could not have believed him more if the words had come from a burning bush.

 

With Emil calmer, Sonny went back to the window. and peaked. He could see the beetle shaped flyers coming to rest on the lawn and street. “We’re anarchists,” he said. “They won’t know what to do with anarchy, so they will over react. They can’t help it. It’s what happens when you never grow old and you never change.

***

Captain Sandvik manually checked the charge on her tranq rifle while the flyer descended. It was an unnecessary action since all the data about her equipment — not just the rifle, but her armor and med-unit and sensor suite — was piped into her field of vision via heads up eyeplants, but it was a comforting habit. She had been, after all, been doing it for decades, as long as she had been a cop. Over the long years she had found that the tools changed, but she never changed and neither did the criminals.

 

She surveyed the men in the flyer with her. Most sat patiently waiting for the thing to land. Conteh looked impatient, ready for a fight. Otero looked nervous. Sandvik recalled that Otero was young, just fifty, and probably had never seen any real action. It was rare. Even she had not fired her tranq in twenty years.

 

The flyer touched down and the door folded away. She was on her feet and out into the yard immediately, followed and flanked by her subordinate officers. Before her stood the enemy fortress, a one story, three bedroom suburban house at the end of a cul de sac. She ordered her men to take up defensive positions and the remaining flyers to maintain clear airspace and looked over the house. She thought, nice blinds.

***

“Oh, god,” whined Emil. “It’s happening.” He looked like he was going to puke, then did, all over the retro afghan rug.

 

“Not yet,” said Sonny to himself, but then to Emil he added, “It’s okay, hon. This is what we wanted, remember?”

 

Emil wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “I don’t know,” he said. Sonny glowered and he added swiftly, “I mean, I did, but now that we’re here, that it’s about to happen, I’m scared.”

 

Sonny softened his expression in the practiced way of a long time significant other. His very awareness of it irked him. It was habit, nothing more, a normal behavior made mechanical by long years of repetition. Even so, he remained placid.

 

“Emil, honey, we went over this again and again. How old are we?”

 

After a moment of hesitation, Emil answered, “I’m seventy five. You’re seventy nine.”

 

“Right,” said Sonny, “and what’s our favorite band?”

 

“The Larks.”

 

“Right, and how old were we when they came out?”

 

“I don’t know. Thirty, maybe?”

 

“Yeah,” said Sonny, his eyes flashing. “Our favorite band has been the same for almost fifty years. Do you know why?”

 

Emil shook his head.

 

“Because we don’t change. Because nothing changes. Because we don’t age and we don’t have to go through the stages of life. We were thirty when we got Treated. We’ll be thirty forever.”

 

Yeah, I know, Sonny. It’s just, is that so bad?”

 

Sonny raged, drawing the revolver and waving it in Emil’s direction. “Yes! God, yes! The whoe, world is thirty, or fifty or seventy like my ridiculous parents. Everyone is stuck, forever, at the age they got Treated and now people are Treating their kids because they don’t want them to ever age or grow up. It’s sick, Emil! It’s wrong!”

***

There was movement inside. Despite the blinds, Captain Sandvik could see with her HUD that one man, one of the anarchist terrorists who claimed to have planted bombs at the Treatment facility, was waving a very old fashioned gun around. “get ready,” she ordered.

 

She was directing Otero toward the south side of the house when the bang! reverberated through the house and into the yard. Later, surveillance video would show the embrace and the kiss and the intimate murder. At the time, though, Sandvik was hitting the grass as bullets flew out into the yard through the blinds.

 

Most of her men took cover. Some cowered. It was Conteh, though, that hunkered down, aimed and fired into the house. She knew from the sound of it that his rifle was not armed with tranqs.

***

“I love you,” said Sonny. He let Emil slip to the floor, kissed him once on the forehead, and then turned and fired wildly through the blinds into the front yard. It only took a moment before one of the police fulfilled Sonny’s promise.

 

As he faded, Sonny felt grateful. No prison of eternal, unchanged Sonny-ness would hold him.

***

There were no bombs at the Treatment facility, or even an anarchist cell. Sandvik shook her head. Why two guys her own age would commit suicide by cop when they had literally forever to look forward to, she did not understand — nor could she.

 

Alien Intelligences: Superior, Inferior and Vastly Different

One of the most enduring themes in science fiction (and both fantasy and horror to a lesser degree) is that of the alien intelligence, the Intellectual Other. While this theme is most often exemplified by actual alien beings in fiction, it also includes everything from future humans and artificial intelligence to animals (both mundane and uplifted) and non-human hominids. Alien intelligences are notoriously difficult o write well by virtue of their very definition: being alien, they are hard o comprehend and, for the writer, imagine. Too often, the depiction of such intellectual others becomes caricature of specific human intellectual archetypes: the very opposite of “alien” in fact.

There are a few basic “types” of alien intelligences to consider. The first and most obvious is the so-called “superior” intelligence. The idea seems basic and comprehensible: aliens that are smarter than us. But what does that mean, precisely? We all know people who are incrementally smarter than ourselves, and most of us likely know someone who is intellectually inferior, either in our opinion or due to some mental or medical deficit. Superior intelligences, though, are not simply “smarter people” and inferior intelligences aren’t simply “dumber.” The difference is not that e tween you and Stephen Hawking, but between the average chimpanzee and the average human. Both are “intelligent species” but they are so far apart that human endeavor, art and civilization and war and technology, are utterly incomprehensible to the chimpanzee. Equally so, the things important to the chimp are so base, so rudimentary that we, as humans, cannot grasp their value o that “inferior” intellect.

Imagine, then, a species as more intelligent than us as we are to chimpanzees. In the same way that advanced mathematics, poetry and reality television are incomprehensible to the chimp,whatever intellectual pursuits occupy our superiors would be so incomprehensible to us. The sciences, arts and entertainments they produced would at best confound us and most likely seem opaque o the point of nonsensical. As such we might not even recognize such a species as intelligent at all, especially if encountered on their own world (space ships tend to mark one as intelligent), and just like the chimp lashing out at the human researcher, we might attack rather than study or consider. Equally likely, assuming we are in the median of universal intelligence, is the possibility of contact with a species notably less intelligent than we. Even giving that we would recognize such a species as intelligent, chances are we would default to pity at best and paternalism or indifference at worst.

Related is our own interactions with the animal kingdom, specifically rose species like elephants and dolphins that are assumed to be “less intelligent” but are also notably alien (as opposed o the chimp, who we consider to be a proto-human intelligence). What does a single manipulative digit or a life in the open ocean do in regards to the development and exercise of intelligence? Do we consider animals to be stupid because we cannot comprehend them, not because of their (arbitrarily rated) intellectual inferiority? Given that human tend to label those who do not think like us as “stupid” (whether ethnic minorities who don’t know the dominant language or political extremists whose philosophies are very different from our own) how could we possibly label non-hominid animals as “intelligent”? And if we were to boost he intellectual capacity of an apparently intelligent species, why do we think that would make them more like us, intellectually, rather than making them even more alien? All this, of course, assumes that biological intelligence is an independent process rather than an aggregate of biological needs filtered through a neurology of a particular level of complexity. If that is the case, then a smarter animal would indeed be more similar to humans, since we too are animals. That in itself holds profound philosophical implications regarding human nature and where our fellow Earthling species fall in relation to us.

The final category of alien intelligence common to science fiction is artificial intelligence. It is telling that AI is so often presented as anathema to biological intelligence, or constrained by rules that define its relationship to biological intelligence. Moreover, AI often fits into the “superior intelligence” category, and occasionally in the “animal intelligence” category, particularly in the aspect that an AI functions in a very different environment than humans. All that said, I think there is a different reason why AI provoke strong reactions in science fiction: AI can be alien because they can represent a purely practical or “logical” intelligence,which is as alien to human intelligence as a being living in Zero-G or one extremely long or short lived. Humans are anything but practical, basing extremely important decisions on emotions, superstitions, intuitions and strongly held but otherwise unsupported positions. AI, on the other hand, can be cold and calculating, mathematizing life and death in a way we cannot.

Interestingly, science fiction does not reserve cold logic for AI alone. The genre is lousy with logical alien species like Star Trek’s Vulcans. These serve as effective stand ins for AI. Other artificial beings are often so much like us that they can hardly be considered alien at all, such as the replicants from Bladerunner. In the end, what constitutes an alien AI falls under the same rules as what constitutes any alien intelligence: is it sufficiently different from us to demand a category of its own. Most often, the answer is a resounding “no” since most aliens in sci-fi qualify as stand ins for humans of a certain kind or specific political, social or philosophical bent.

Tomorrow’s Land Surveyor, Today!

I am a licensed land surveyor by trade. My job is primarily about geospatial location of concrete information (sometimes literally!). I spend a lot of time on construction sites, from bridges and roads to schools and office buildings. Less often than I used to but still occasionally, I tromp through the woods searching for evidence of property ownership that may be years, decades or even centuries old. In Connecticut, fieldstone walls, ancient wire fence and cedar posts, and very large trees are all potential boundary markers.

 

For any given piece of land or construction project, there is a huge amount of geospatial data associated with it. These things can be boiled down into categories: limits (from property lines to wetlands setbacks), existing structures (both old and recently built) and potential structures (both those proposed in the project and those that *might* exist due to spotty recordkeeping). Moreover, each of these things exists in at least three dimensions, and oftentimes four (those pesky potential structures I mentioned, in particular).

 

So what does any of this have to do with writing, particularly the writing of speculative fiction? Well, when it comes to writing about could-be and might-be worlds, it is important, I think, to imagine how those worlds operate not just in the action set pieces or dramatic dialogues, but in the everyday world outside the windows of your characters. Usually, we use technology to describe that world, and it so happens that land surveying, as old as it is a profession (I think we rank third, after prostitution and bartending), is highly technological. We adopted the use of electronic distance meters, laser levelling, computer aided drafting, 3D scanning and GPS into our work and nothing suggests that we will not do the same with emerging technologies. So I want to look at what the future of surveying might look like, both for my own amusement (I am a long way from retirement) and as an example of how we as SF writers can take what is otherwise a pedestrian, mundane element and apply our prognosticating abilities to it.

 

What really got me thinking about this subject was Google Glass. Augmented reality has existed in fiction and film for quite some time and there have been a few minor attempts to integrate our smartphones into AR in recent years, but it is Glass that is really the first step into an AR world. Sure, Glass is ugly and nerdy and stinks of hipster, but it is the future. Whether it is Google or Apple or some yet-unknown startup that turns it from niche to necessary, augmented reality is the next world changing consumer technology. It will infuse everything from warfare to medicine to amusement parks, and it will certainly be used in land surveying.

 

Imagine standing in an open field, recently bulldozed of a dilapidated townhouse so that a multi-story elevator parking garage can be built. Today, you would have a roll of maps in your hand, a field computer and data collector weighing down your survey rod and an expensive robotic instrument sitting off site, either unprotected or guarded by a paid employee doing very little else. You might have determined your starting location by tying in to municipal or State survey control, or you might be using GPS. In either case, you have to translate that starting location into angles and distances from your instrument and pray for line of site.

 

Fast forward ten years, perhaps less. Instead of holding a survey rod weighed down by a field computer, you are wearing OSHA approved safety glasses with a built in heads up display. Those same glasses are linked to GPS and RTK location networks. Instead of a roll of plans showing you where the futuristic car park is to be built, a ghostly image of the structure fills your view. You can banish it at whim, or add or remove detail with a word. You can see the property lines and building setback limits on the ground as surely as if they were marked with paint, and when it is time to place a stake for a column location, it became a pulsing target accurate down to the thousandth of a foot. The plans for the garage are themselves stored in the cloud, so when the architects and engineers apply changes to the plans, they are updated automatically. Your roll of plans can never be out of date. In addition, as you work and the structure itself is built, it is scanned by your glasses and added to the virtual building and site information.

 

Obviously, augmented reality holds a lot of promise for land surveying, and it is not too far off. Like the newest robotic instruments and GPS systems, it will take time for the technology cost to come down so midsized and smaller firms can afford it, but the largest companies will be early adopters as they were with 3D scanning and CAD/GPS machine control for construction.

 

There are some other emerging technologies that will change and empower the land surveying profession. After augmented reality, the most valuable may be the commercial use of drones. Currently, surveyors make extensive use of aerial photography and photogrammetry. These are expensive though, since you have to hire a plane and a pilot. Very soon, I think, those companies will switch over to drone use, cutting both costs and delivery times. New radar and scanning technologies will likely increase the value of aerial photography, as well.

 

Another useful technology yet in its relative infancy is GIS — Geographic Information Systems. All sorts of field make use of GIS, tracking everything from land data to demographics. When fully integrated into an accessible, cloud based data hub, GIS will be a huge asset for both augmented reality in surveying as well as planning and property development.

 

Farther in the future, 3D printing on a large scale, such as was recently suggested for building a lunar base, will have an impact on land surveying. However, this impact might not be positive for either surveyors or the construction workers who fabricate office building and parking garages. With the structural and architectural information uploaded and raw materials at hand, large scale 3D printers could raise complex structures in a fraction of the time required by manpower.

 

Finally, automation might be the nail in the coffin for the land surveyor. As robots get smaller, more mobile, more versatile and ultimately more intelligent, when combined with augmented reality and GIS systems, they could easily and effectively take over for human surveys much as they have with more confined manufacturing work. Swarms of microbots could easily survey large sites and buildings with laser scanning, while more specialized larger robots could plant stakes faster and more precisely than any human.

 

It is impossible to say what will happen in the future, even a few short years out. No one can predict random, or seemingly random, events that shape the future, and fewer can effectively model for human quirks in their futurism. Always, there is the potential for an unforeseen technological or scientific leap that changes everything, such as the rise of electronics in the mid 20th century. But when imagining futures, both our own and those of the characters in our stories, it is important to remember the nuts and bolts of the world. Imagine what your profession will look like in the future about which you are writing.