Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Boosting the Signal: Geek Gab

If you haven't listened to the latest edition of Geek Gab yet, it's well worth your time.  Just be ready for a bombastic introduction by Daddy Warpig; he settles down after the first couple of minutes, and while still excited, drops the slow yelling.

P. Alexander is the guest in this particular show, and he dishes out the hard sell for Cirsova magazine (two weeks left in the Kickstarter, yo), but all three men focus more on the ongoing pulp revolution and their excitement for science fiction in the Gernsbeckian and Campbellian tradition. 

As one of the new kids on the pulp revolution block, I fully understand that this has probably already been brought to your attention.  The intention of the "signal boost" posts is to add one more voice in support, one more piece of word-of-mouth-advertising for the good stuff, and one more link to aid the SEO of these deserving works.

This particular post is just another reminder for fellow revolutionaries that you are not alone.  If you long to read the sort of science fiction and fantasy marked by Heinlein's juveniles rather than Heinlein's latter works, it's coming.  A lot of people are waking up and returning to the fold after a long time away from the genre.  Which can only lead to positive developments.

Right now, we are in the early stages of a positive feedback loop. As more readers abandon the dreary 'romance in a spaceship' and 'political tract with a dragon' style of modern genre fiction, and look to the pulp revolution, more writers will experiment with that style.  As more writers produce material, more readers will learn of the revolution.  So take heart - every planetary romance and weird fantasy and sci-fi actioner you buy grows the market and helps encourage more materials for your reading pleasure.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Street Fight: The Karl Barber Collection

Karl Barber is a modern day action hero fighting the good fight to make the world a better place, one job at a time.  From stopping rapacious transnational lumber corporations in the jungles of Cambodia to fighting violent human traffickers in the southwest American deserts, Karl sets out to do the right thing and won't let up until the job is done.  These aren't stories of complex human relationships or deep philosophical navel gazing with a few paragraphs of action thrown in to check off the 'thriller' box - these are stories of pure adrenaline fuelled action, not suitable for the Ladies Auxiliary Book Club. 

Now Karl Barber returns for a fourth thrilling installment, in "Street Fight".  For the first time ever, Karl's fight against the evils of the world occurs on his native American soil.  On his way from a downtown hotel, he leaps into action when a mob of violent thugs attempts to disrupt a peaceful political rally, and winds up in the fight, and flight, of his life.  "Street Fight", is only available inside this collection of his first four adventures.

Monday, August 29, 2016

This Is Why We Fight

It’s everywhere.

Cruising around with my daughter as she peck, peck, pecked at her cell phone, she snorted in disgust.  “This stupid game,” she sneered.  “You see what I have to deal with?”
At the next stoplight she showed me what was on the screen.  She had been playing some silly little High School Sim, and at various points the game required the payer to answer a question.  She explained that these weren’t quizzes, but surveys.  Here’s the survey that caused her mucosal disdain:
Free to play: just consume our anti-scientific propaganda
about the field of science.
This is an innocent freemium style game, and they just can’t resist including a survey question designed to remind girls that they are victims, that they need help, that their natural interests are badwrong and need to be addressed.
Now, the easy response would be to tell her to shut off the game, delete it, and move on.  This is undoubtedly the tip of a pernicious iceberg.  Instead, we had a nice (and from her perspective no doubt mercifully brief) discussion about how this survey question is just another salvo in the war for her soul. 
The good news is that she immediately recognized the underlying assumption of the question, looked for the response to attack that assumption, and on finding that questioning the assumption was not on the list, selected the choice that least served the goals of the game’s makers.  The best she could do, as evidenced by the green check mark, was to respond with a non-committal, “I need to learn more.”  And learn more she did.
We ditched the vagueness of the assertions and drilled down to the notion that the culture warriors are trying to sell her on two ideas that diametrically oppose each other.  The first that she is a victim forever cast about and directed by the whims of the bad old patriarchy.  The second that she is a strong and fierce and independent go grrl, or at least she could be if she simply allowed the culture warriors to save her from herself, and to do all her thinking for her.
We talked about how, if she surrenders her liberty and rational independent thought to the feminists, they will knock down all the barriers that prevent her from making her own choices…provided she chooses to do what they want her to do with her life.  Like, maybe go into the STEM fields for a living.
“And if I just want to raise a family,” she asked?
I explained that that was just the patriarchy talking.  She should just choose to do what the feminists think is best for her: get a degree, work for twenty years, try to have one or two children a full decade after her primer fertility years, and then continue to work in a cubicle farm to pay somebody else to play with her children.
She thought that sounded dreadful, and then asked how their deciding that more girls should love science is any better than others deciding that girls shouldn’t.
I didn’t have an answer for that question – I was just proud that she asked it.  I’d hoped she would, given that I was leading here right to that point with my own loaded questions.  But then, there really isn’t an answer for the contradictions and inherent rejection of reality buried deep in the heart of all feminist thought.
And that’s why I encourage my children to play those sorts of games and watch those sorts of shows.  They will be exposed to the constant tidal flow of propaganda for their entire lives, and the only way to inoculate them is to constantly stand over their shoulder and chant, “Remember thou art being sold a bill of goods,” over and over.  Based on her bringing this little quiz to my attention, that strategy seems to be working.
Man, I love homeschooling.
So, score one for the video game company – their little app inspired a conversation all right.  I just don’t think it was the one they’d hoped.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

What It's All About

You, gentle reader, are not alone.  Thanks to the kind and generous support of fellow travelers Jeffro, PC Bushi, and Cirsova, the traffic on this blog has jumped to levels that should have taken months to reach.  Before we get into a timely introduction for recent regular visitors, let me thank you all for sparing a few moments of your time to stop by.  There’s a lot of blogs out there, and your choosing this one today is much appreciated.

PCBushi had the best description of this dank corner of the internet when he called it a “young blog mostly about culture, gaming, and fiction.”  That stands in contrast to the “About” page which includes the mission statement, “one man’s attempt to cast off the shackles of the corporate cubicle farm and start a new life as an independent author, voice talent, and free thinker.”

So where’s all the writing and voice talent stuff?  It's around.  There are links in the top and side bar to my past work, but daily updates of current projects are rather pointless and dull.  Rest assured that the plan for escaping Corporatopia are proceeding apace and you’ll get updates at all the important milestones.
Right now, in addition to this blog, I’m juggling three writing projects.  The first is a fairly large ghost-writing project with a non-disclosure agreement.  There's nothing I can say about that project.  The second is the finishing touches of a fourth story which will be included in a compendium of the first three K-Bar stories.  That process, preparing a book for self-publishing on Amazon, will be discussed, but it's far better to have the experience done and a product to point to than a bunch of half-formed thoughts and vague assurances that something is coming.  The third is writing up a review of my current read, Nethereal, for the Puppy of the Month Book Club.  Aside from the random gratuitous plug (like this one), that will be posted over at that blog, for obvious reasons.

In the meantime, even while this blog serves more as an excuse to warm up the writing muscles before getting down to the more lucrative keyboard banging, the desire to present posts relevant to you, gentle reader, is never far from my thoughts.  As such, most of the content here will concern more topical and timeless subjects than those that burble up during the slow marathon-like grind of producing high quality writing and voice over work.  Lately, the world has been throwing me more material than I can use, but not nearly enough time to use it, which has led to a rough schedule of one post every other day, on average.  That trend will surely continue.  So check back often, pay no attention to the visual décor, and enjoy the ride.
I’ve got posts coming up discussing a lesser known hard-boiled cop series of novels from the 1960s, advice on raising children as outsiders in your own country, and an update on my latest wargaming experiences.  I've also got a few surprises in store for 2017, but if I tell you any more, they won't be surprises.  If any of that sounds appealing, you know where to find me.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Stranger Things, It's Decent

We’re almost living in golden age of television production.  The production costs are lower, the transmission methods varied, and the consumer market fractured to the point that it is easier than ever to allow for quality production of niche programming.  Producers are free to be daring, take risks, and make whatever sorts of shows interest them without the worry that it might not attract a majority share of the all-important 18 to 35 demographic.  If it wasn’t for the hamfisted agitprop crammed into most shows, we might just reach that golden age. 

For the first time in a long time, I’ve watched a show from start to finish and not felt to bad about it.  Based on a review found at somebody’s blog, I took the Netflix Original series, “Stranger Things”, for a test drive and just kept right on watching.  It’s an old school thriller set in small town Indiana during the 1980s.  A young boy and a teen girl go missing and three different teams of investigators slowly uncover the truth of the matter.  Their stories weave in and out as each discovers their own trail of clues leading up to the final confrontation. 
It’s not great, but it’s pretty darn good.  The acting ranges from stiff to overblown – Winona Ryder plays a mother with only two emotions, raving hysterics and mumbling sorrow.  We’re given no real reason at the outset to particularly like any of the characters, other than because they are the ones whose stories we are following.  My favorite characters in the show are all supporting roles – they often show more character than the stars, who take a lot more effort to like than they should given that we are supposed to be rooting for them.  I spent most of the show making excuses for their behavior towards other people, and you really shouldn't have to do that for your protagonists. 

Still and all, it’s a nice slow burn mystery that clocks in at six hours of entertainment.  It has an internal consistency to its mythos and cosmology that is refreshing to see.  None of the main characters acts in a particularly stupid manner just to serve the needs of the plot.  Yes, some do act in stupid ways, but for understandable reasons, he’s twelve years old, she’s a grieving mother, that sort of thing.  And the show spends just enough time showing their normal routine, their normal crises, and how the pressure of the situation affects those day to day pressures.  It’s very Stephen Kingesque in that regard.
The suspense ratchets up well over time.  Six hours is a long time to sustain the mystery and keep the viewers interest, while simultaneously keeping the body count low and the plot moving forward at a reasonable pace, but “Stranger Things” manages that trick.  Interestingly, much of the suspense occurs when two people discuss the crisis and the search of the missing boy, they each hold a piece of the puzzle, and if they could only share those pieces they’d be a lot better off.  At the same time, neither one thinks the other will believe him or her, and so they talk around the subject while the viewer knows both that they should just blurt out the information, and at the same time knows why they don’t.  That’s some solid writing.
The little nods to the era were nice, too.  The 40+ crowd might want to check it out if only for the nostalgic factor of synth music and opening title sequence that could have been sucked through a wormhole straight from the 1980s. Pull tab Schlitz beer, an actual A/V club, a close-enough-for-government-work soundtrack and posters for John Carpenter’s “The Thing” are a few other fun examples.
All in all, “Stranger Things” gets a tepid recommendation.  Despite its flaws, it’s well worth a watch. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016


Who, me?
A funny thing happened on the way to the regularly scheduled Democratic candidate speech dedicated to calling Republican voters racist.  While describing the latest oogity-boogity man to shore up support from the perpetually frightened voters, some non-violent protestor exercised his right to freedom of speech by shouting out, "Pepe!"

Made me laugh.  Before we get any deeper into this, I'm not really a part of the internet troll culture.  I mix it up a bit on Twitter, but have never been to any of the chans, and limit my political analysis to some fairly milk-toast sites.  I do love me some Pepe, but that's just because...I mean, look at that face!  Don't know why but the utter inanity of Pepe combined with the high stakes political game just busts me up every time.  (Perhaps not every time, but you get the idea.)

What follows is an outsider's analysis and not based on any inside information.  Nor is it so much a call for action as it is a prediction based on past performance.

With that out of the way, let's do some nonstandard analysis and predictimicating.  We all know that the standard analysis will consist of long winded versions of the playground "Uh uh!" and "Yuh huh!" arguments.  Instead, let's look at one potentially huge ramification of this random guy yelling one random word into the short silence between sentences.

This guy just opened the door for every alt-right troll to turn the tables on the left.  They've established that shouting during Trump speeches is a legitimate form of protest.  That means that the alt-right can shout/protest Hillary speeches by yelling, "Pepe!" 

Will she bar them from entry?  How?  Right now Hillary's crowds are so small they'll take every warm body they can get.  Any 'net troll who wants to up his game can get through the doors and sound the call for freedom during her speech. 

One shout is a pin-prick, but if this happens over and over at her events, it's going to become the slow drip of Chinese water torture.  She can't respond to the shouts; any man with the stones to protest like this will be more than capable of engaging in whatever rhetorical thrust and parry she brings to the show.  Heck, even responding grants the alt-right troll a legitimacy that she can't afford to grant him.  There's no good response but having security make the protestor quietly disappear*.

How will they respond to that?  If history is any guide, with an iron fist.  The campaign will have to start vetting entrants and that's going to suck all the way around.  They'll drive away more people, spend money, slow things down, aggravate her loyalists through un-necessary checks.

*Take that however you choose.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Two Panels Diverged

While shouldering my way through a particularly grinding commute this week, I found myself with the time to listen to a pair of mp3’s that had been sitting on my phone.  The first was a recording of the 2016 Worldcon panel on “State of Short Fiction" that saw its moderator, Dave Truesdale, ejected from that convention in particular, from Worldcon in general, and from all of polite society.  The second was the much less well known Appendix N seminar held at GenCon 2016, which was sponsored by the crew over at Goodman Games. Listening to the two back to back provided a clear example of the stark contrast between the tiredness and tedium of the leaders of the dinosaur publishing outfits and the passion and creativity of the new school guys working out on the fringes of the genre.

Brief aside:  If your attack or defense of Truesdale includes the notion that he shouldn’t have recorded the panel, you’re an idiot, and I’ll reject the remainder of your analysis out of hand.  A panel discussion is a public event in which the participants have no expectation of privacy.  You are also signaling that the views expressed by ‘your side’ don’t stand up to the light of scrutiny, and if you don’t have enough faith in your views to allow that, then why would anyone else adopt them?
That said, this isn’t a post about the merits of Truesdale’s ouster.  Admittedly, that was my own initial impetus for listening to the WroldCon Panel; I originally listened to the first to try and get a handle on what sort of nonsense goes on at your typical Worldcon.  I’ve never been to Worldcon, being 100 pounds under the apparent weight limit for entry, and wanted to hear firsthand what went down, what so triggered the SJWs, and what the ‘industry insiders’ sound like when they discuss a matter such as the “state of short fiction”.  What I heard was a cantankerous old cur fighting to steer the conversation towards the political culture built by the major publishers of short fiction on one side, and four boring midwits who clearly aren’t nearly as intelligent as they sound in their heads. 

The question of Truesdale’s ouster quickly became secondary to the far more interesting question of how such boring people came to be tasked with writing, editing, and producing for a market that one would think was supposed to provide non-boring materials.  Sci-fi and fantasy should be the realm of rockets and rayguns and wizards throwing lightning bolts.  It should feature big creatures and big explosions and big science.  Even when it tells stories about ideas rather than dragons or rayguns, those ideas should be big ideas with world shaking consequences.
The only idea expressed by the WorldCon panelists was “diversity”.  They have it.  They have more of it.  Anyone who thinks they don’t have it is wrong.  And if they don’t have what you want that’s because what you want is bad and doesn’t fit within the narrow bands of acceptable diversity.  Every attempt to steer the conversation was an attempt to drive it towards a group wide back patting over everyone’s successes in promoting ‘the right people’ and keeping ‘the wrong people’ out. 

There was no discussion about big new ideas. No one mentioned of exciting new voices.  No one talked about interesting new developments in short fiction (hello, Cirsova!).  No one mentioned a story by name, even as an example.  No one mentioned exciting new characters or writers.  It was all vague and airy and completely tepid.  Even with Truesdale’s chain yanking, it may have been the most boring panel discussion that I’ve ever heard.  That’s really saying something coming from a man who once spent three years working as a hotel bartender, which meant standing in the back of countless panels listening to everything from insurance salesmen talking about actuarials to the state of the breakfast cereal industry to Democratic fund raising efforts – and not nationally relevant or salacious efforts, either, but the petty, local, small change efforts to squeeze nickels out of school teachers and easily conned elderly people.
What struck me most about the panel was utterly banal and pedestrian the whole thing was.  It sounded like a bunch of tired parents bickering about whether or not the next bake sale should be traditional or only include healthy organic choices.  You wouldn’t expect that from a panel featuring the leading lights of the most exciting genre of fiction in the world, but here we are.

Listening to the second panel, hosted Goodman Games, purveyor of fine role-playing adventures for various editions of Dungeons and Dragons, was one heck of a palette cleanser.  Here you listened to four guys excited about sci-fi and fantasy, discussion big ideas, concrete events and characters, and how the writers of yesterday continued to influence the writers of today.  The panel was wide ranging; it discussed literature spanning more than sixty years, and drifted off into related topics like artwork and publishing.  The panel was engaging; it featured laughter and disagreements.  The panel was informative; even an old hand at Appendix N literature could come away with some new fragment of information they hadn’t seen before.  (Personally, there were a few things about Frank Frazetta’s career arc that I hadn’t heard before.) The panel was everything you would expect from a group of people excited to work in an exciting genre like sci-fi and/or fantasy.

Listening to these two panels back to back was enlightening just because of the contrast it provided between the two camps.  It showed beyond any shadow of a doubt what the ultimate effects of Convergence are on a company, and industry, and a culture.  One the one hand you have grizzled and bland old dinosaurs desperate to hang onto positions of influence, and to use that influence for political purposes.  On the other hand you have energetic and excited idea-men who just love fantasy and sci-fi, and who just want to learn from the old masters and take their ideas in brave new directions.
That’s the choice before fans of sci-fi/fantasy today.  The well trod and potentially lucrative road of the dinosaurs, or the less travelled road of the fun loving idea men.

As for me, I'll be following Robert Frost down the road less travelled.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Puppy of the Month Book Club

In an effort to build up the fan community for those who love Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy, and Puppy-related works, I've started the Puppy of the Month Book Club.  This new blog will select one book a month from either of the official Puppy Hugo lists, or at least a book that could have been on one of those lists.

Online sci-fi/fantasy fandom spends a lot of time talking about these books, but most of those conversations are scattered over a dozen blogs and multiple social media platforms.  If you're anything like me, a lot of those conversations are over and done with before you've had a chance to clear your reading queue and read the work for yourself.  This is a chance to join a community dedicated to selecting worthy books, and reading and discussing them in some detail. 

At this point, I'm calling for anyone who would like to sign up to Contribute to the project.  All you're committing to is reading one book and writing a quick summary or review.  If you're up for that, leave a comment, and I'll get back to you.  If that's too much, then feel free to lurk, and join in the conversation in the blog comments.

As a club, this isn't something I'm doing for me, but for the wider community.  I'll pick the first book, just to get the ball rolling, but future works will be selected on a rotational basis by other Contributors.  That way everyone can get thoughts on books they love, and everyone gets to read books that might be somewhat outside of their own lists.

It should be fun, shoot me a message, and jump on in.

Monday, August 22, 2016

You're Welcome, Hugos

Each of the last two year's of Hugo Awards have seen more ink spilled across the dinosaur media than in any ten years previous, combined.  All of this attention was garnered not for the quality of the works presented at the Hugos, and not as a small part of the recent uptick in interest for geek culture by the wider culture at large.  All of this extra attention heaped on the Hugo Awards has had one central focus: lying about conservatives.

There's really no point in picking any one or a dozen of the color-by-numbers articles covering the Hugo Awards.  They write themselves, "People who meet the right demographic criteria won, the racist right wingers did everything could to block them, and failed.  Nerdom is safe for the Narrative for another year."  Pad that out with inaccurate histories, a few quotes from one and only one side of the issue, and remind the reader that anyone to the right of Che Guevara probably has white robes stashed under their bed, and you're done.  Time for some overpriced martinis at a cocktail party hosted by the right people in the right town.  It's the same playbook used for every other piece of what passes for journalism these days.

While the Hug Award Faithful are busy this week congratulating themselves on another successful year, there's just one little fly of truth in the ointment of self-congratulations...

That coverage doesn't help them, it helps the Puppies.

Like cockroaches*, they can really only do their dirty work in the dark.  The more people see the Hugo Award Faithful, the more they will see what they really are.  The more people see what they really are, the more they will start questioning the Hugo Narrative and be repulsed by it.  The more people start are repulsed by the Hugo Narrative, the more they will find alternatives like Sad Puppies or the Rabid Puppies.

The Puppies are fun loving decent people who love truth, justice (not the phony façade of social justice), and the American way of science fiction and fantasy - rollicking good stories with hard science, weird magic, and something to offer other than people meeting diversity checkboxes and plain women who are really beautiful whose biggest problem in life is deciding between the rich handsome supernatural half-man, and the down to earth sensitive and secretly rich supernatural half-man.

The Hugo Faithful win in dark rooms behind closed doors and cannot stand the sight of a mirror.  Their ouster of Dave Truesdale serves as yet another data point demonstrating that they cannot tolerate dissent of any kind.  The Puppies thrive on attention and adventure and conflict.

Your average reader, looking for a good fun read without a scolding, has only one choice.  Every one of those articles written by the dinosaur media might feel good and scratch a short term itch for the Hugo Award Faithful, but they serve the long term interests of the Puppies.  Keep 'em coming - you're doing the Puppy's work for them.

Hugo Dalenda Est

* I can guarantee some member of the Hugo Party will claim I called them cockroaches.  Note that I didn't say they are cockroaches, just that they are like cockroaches.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Hugo Awards 2016: Message Delivered

WorldCon, for the third year in a row, delivered a powerful message to a significant portion of the sci-fi/fantasy fandom.  In honor of their now openly admitted role of driving fans from the genre and consumers from the market, I propose a slight modification to the Hugo Award logo.  One that more accurately reflects WorldCon's opinion of the Hugo fans who vote as they are told:

Saturday, August 20, 2016

A Message From Literally Super Duper Hitler

Time Magazine, that lumbering dinosaur of the old media, is not happy that the alt-right mammals are running around their ankles, eating their eggs, and is ready and waiting for the sweet meteor of death.  Good.

Oh, Pepe, you shortcut to
humor, is there any post
you can't improve?
Time Magazine called me racist when I was just a Republican.
Time Magazine called me super-racist when I was just a Tea Party Type.
Time Magazine is now calling me a super-duper-racist now that I'm part of the alt-right. 

That's like three layers of racist stacked on top of each other.

The problem with strategies that rely on trump cards to win is that sooner or later all the trump suited cards have been played.  Then you're left with nothing.  You're guns are empty and everyone just watches as you point and click the trigger over and over while the alt-right you've been trying to shoot just laughs and walks away.

Remember when Bush was Hitler?  And then McCain, and then Romney?  It wasn't that long ago.  Now the American media has found that calling Trump Hitler has no effect - the American host has started to develop natural antibodies to that particular attack.  Even squishy center types roll their eyes when they hear Trump labeled Hitler.  Those who use that line of attack out themselves as wild-eyed crazies and full blown crackpot Marxists of the marching in the streets, burning down their own neighborhood "for justice and stuff" types.

It's so over that of all the lies and distortions and sins of omission that Joel Stein comits, the one thing that motivates me to analyze his piece at all is the rich mother lode of irony it contains.  That screed contains so many layers of irony they are hard to fully pierce.  The one that sticks out to me must be the contradiction inherent in an online article disagreeing with and attacking people for having the temerity to go online and disagree with and attack people.

Welcome to the dark side, Joel Stein.  Your Pepe memes and Harambe meditations are already in the mail.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Discovering Stories > Unwrapping Them

Back in the glory days of my gaming career, when six hour sessions of D&D were a regular occurrence, and not a rare celebration, the story that developed was as much a surprise to the DM as it was to the players. Sure, the DM had read or written a module, but there was no telling how the players would approach the situation, and how they would direct the action. Those games included a third party that exerted just as much influence on the direction of the game as the DM and the players. That third player was the much loved and much vilified dice.

A concrete example: Early in The Long Campaign, the villains the characters faced had a nasty habit of getting away at the end of the tale, and returning a week later to wreak vengeance. This wasn’t by design, it was just a happenstance of the circumstances and effective dice rolls on those disengagement checks. After a string of ambushes at inopportune moments, the players started looking for way to cut off escape before engaging combat. They started cutting down every foe that cut and run, just as a means of avoiding trouble down the road.

They weren’t a particularly bloodthirsty group of players. They hid from, snuck around, bluffed through, or bribed their way past many potential combats, but once the gloves came off they didn’t stop swinging until every enemy was dead or dying. Again, this wasn’t a conscious decision on anyone’s part; it just sort of…happened.

We didn’t know it at the time, but what we were doing was an exploration of a different kind. We didn’t write stories or prepare stories, we set up a few avatars, nudged them a bit this way and that, but at the end of the day all of our choices and all of the die rolls combined to form a story that no one could have predicted at the outset. No one planned for the polymorphed wizard’s cure to leave him with frog eyes. No one planned for the thief to wind up with a 19 Dexterity despite hobbling about on a peg-leg. No one planned for the fighter to be a reckless miser willing to charge into any fight if he caught even a glimpse of gold. These were all the result of fortuitous die-rolls, but all played a major role in the game.

We didn’t so much create stories as discover them through play.

Although not nearly as frequent or colorful, we found the same sort of ‘revealed story’ in a number of hex-and-counter wargames. We remember the game of Ogre that saw the behemoth meet its victory condition in two turns only to blow all of its tank treads on the next turn, unable to do anything while it was chewed to pieces by long range artillery. We remember that last German defender in the blockhouse singlehandedly save the left flank of the board from a Soviet onslaught in ASL. Our games of Dawn Patrol always started with a dice-off for the one Sopwith counter that always survived the game. (Which version of the biplane it was escapes me now, but it was a quirky suboptimal plane.) After a while, every scenario turned into “Kill Snoopy” for the German players. We didn’t decide that counter was nigh indestructible and give it stats to ensure that, something in the universe decided that, and we just ran with it.

This same process happened to tabletop RPGs.
When we started going to conventions in the early to mid 1990s, we found that most tables took a different approach. Players had prepared character arcs and full blown backstories – even before they’d rolled their first initiative. Adventures followed pre-set chapters and story lines. All of this entertainment was pre-built. You didn’t discover anything new, you just unwrapped a story already prepared for you. It was a bland and sterile way to play, and it his us just as college, girls, and so many other pursuits provided more stimulating diversions than running along trails blazed by others in tabletop RPGs.

Apparently wargames are undergoing the same sort of process.

Over on the twitbox, no less than Lewis Pulsipher himself, designer of such great wargames as DragonRage and Britannia, lamented the dearth of hex and counter wargames at GenCon 2016.

Through the course of that slow-burn conversation, we gradually approached the idea that pre-packaged stories dominate the RPG market today. For whatever reason, pretty hallways sell better than pretty sandboxes. As grubby little sandboxes, hex-and-counter wargames just can’t provide the same sense of ‘tell me a story but let me pretend to be participating in the telling’ that RPGs do. The very nature of most hex-and-counter wargames precludes set path routes. Players expect a level of freedom and decision in deployment, tactics, or timing. Wargames that limit those aspects in an effort to force players down a ‘pretty hallway’ wind up feeling more like Choose Your Own Adventure Books with a lot more fiddle bits than pages.

As a historical simulation, one would expect the player’s choices to be somewhat limited in scope. Supply, terrain, and ‘the army you have’, are all predicated on the facts of the historical encounter. And yet, players still have the option of trying a new strategy. They commit reserves earlier, attack cities from a different direction, or force a crossing farther upstream where the river is wider, but defenders lighter. Every one of these decisions can allow the tabletop general to discover a new story, rather than simply repeat the original story as recorded in the history books.

And yet, I begin to wonder if the hex-and-counter wargaming hobby isn’t following in the footsteps of the RPG hobby. Eager to write games that accurate recreate historical events, are designers writing more ‘pretty hallways’ these days? My readings suggest this is so, but my own pushing-cardboard tims is too limited to come to any hard and fast conclusions. 

My own experience with Khyber Rifles has not been encouraging. It features a card driven activation system that provides a very historical feel and pace to the game, but binds players hands so tightly that any given turn provides one clear choice: do this or waste the turn. It’s great for illustrating the challenges facing the historic commanders. It’s great for providing historical reality. It’s lousy for providing interesting tactical choices. I need a few more games under my belt to make certain, but at this point it doesn’t look good for Decision Games.

The upshot of this concern is that finding more data to support my contention that even wargames are moving towards a ‘pretty hallway’ model will require finding, buying, and playing more wargames. And that’s just the kind of tactical choice that this old grognard likes to be forced into.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Convention Analysis

Good old Vox posted a group shot of WorldCon attendees for The Current Year.  Some comment wag suggested that it looked like any other shot of 40+ people.  The scientist in me took that as a challenge, picked up the gauntlet, and ran to the internet to run a little experiment.  I compared the original photo to those of attendees for some conventions for other sedentary hobbies.  First, let's look at the original photo:

Now let's look at the first results of a Google Image Search. The caption of each of the following photo is the search terms for those of you who want to verify the results of this experiment.

Video Games:  We start with an obvious search that should show the sort of overweight couch sloths that the anti-GamerGate crowd assures us make up the standard model. 
video game convention
It's a crowd scene, so the sample number is pretty good. Despite that, it doesn't look like there's a single belt-extension in the crowd.

Wargaming: These guys sit around painting and reading and watching the sorts of grainy black and white documentaries that the The History Channel used to show before it went all-in on the midgets and hoarders.  Or is that The Learning Channel...  Either way, wargaming doesn't burn many calories, so surely these guys need to buy two tickets for every flight they take.  The best wargame convention in my country is Historicon, the annual convention of the Historical Miniatures Wargaming Society.
There's a couple of heavy-set gents in the photo, but for the most part it's just a bunch of regular guys who don't need to shop at the local shower curtain store.  Fat fingers and detail painting 15mm figures is a losing combination. 

Knitting:  One might object to the above categories, being as they are populated exclusively by men, so let's take a look at the ladies.  Knitting is a predominantly female (and female-of-center*) hobby

knitting convention
Yikes.  Remember, we're looking at trends here, folks.  The existence of a few retired offensive linemen in this photo is no more relevant than the existence of the same in the wargame photo.   This is a numbers game, just look at the size and appearance of the WorldCon attendees versus these other three conventions.  Run your own analysis and come to your own conclusions.

But I think we all know which one is most likely to appear on Goodbye, America (in a photo).

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Graveyard of Empires...and Pride

A few weeks back a copy of Decision Games’ Khyber Rifles found its way into my shopping cart.  Listening to too many episodes of Wargames to Go will do that to a wargamer.  Between that and regular does of Wargaming Wednesday over at the Castalia House blog, my hankering for a little light wargaming got the better of me.  (On a personal note, keep an eye on Wargaming Wednesday, as yours truly slipped another guest post into their schedule.  This one is about another, much more obscure, light wargame that touches on Fourth Generation War – a rarity.)

It looks like a tight, compact wargame.  It’s been a while since I’ve had time to sit down with a deep game like Advanced Squad Leader or a monstrosity like Stalingrad Pocket or TSR’s Air War.  Until the empty nest hits and my four lovely little time sinks move out, I’ve contented myself with lighter fare such as Awful Green Things, Outpost Gamma, and now hopefully Khyber Rifles.  The latter is a wargame based on the campaign that kicked off the British withdrawal from Afghanistan back during the height of their empire days.
This past weekend, the boy and I found ourselves with an empty house and an hour to kill.  With the impending school season this may have been our last chance for a while to squeeze in a quick wargame.  It didn’t work out so well.  Apparently, you can take the massive wargames away from a wargamer but you can’t take the massive wargames out of a gamer.

We sat down, set up the small map and handful of counters – each side gets around 20 to 25 of them – and reviewed the rules.  That’s when things came to a screeching halt.
Khyber Rifles is a standalone title, but it is also part of a series of games built on a common ruleset framework.  The package comes with a four page ruleset detailing the universal rules, and an extra page listing the force set-up and scenario specific rules.  For the record, the other scenarios in the Hand of Destiny series are Lettow-Vorbeck, an East African WWI game, and Custer’s Final Campaign, the battle of Little Bighorn.

As a graying grognard of no small experience, when the rules refer to a Combat Results Table, I know to look for something like this…

…and came up empty.  No player aid, no chart, nothing.  To email!  Decision Games responded the next day by pointing out that the table in question appears on the map, but is called the Battle Table, not the Combat Results Table.  It turns out this is what I should have been looking for:

 For the love of…of course it’s going to be just that simple, this is a pocket wargame designed to be streamlined.  You shouldn’t need to cross reference anything with anything to play a game like this.  Smooth move, Dad.  Real nice.
Now that the last wrinkle is out of the way, we can get in a game or two and contribute a little more to the best dang wargame blog on the internet.  Look for a full review and write-up of Khyber Rifles over at Castalia House sometime before the heat death of the universe.

Monday, August 15, 2016

John Podhoretz - The Abortion Lobby's Dream Opponent

Can you imagine trying to fight a war with Loyal Oppositionist and Vichy Republican John Podhoretz on your side? Every time you poked your head above the trenches, you’d have to check the area behind your own lines, look left, look right, and then only after assuring yourself that Podhoretz isn’t around, could you even think about looking out into no-man’s land for men wearing the uniform of the enemy. On the intellectual field of battle, he serves the same role that Soviet Political Officers served the Red Army in World War II. He may fire a few desultory shots at the common foe, but he saves his energy and focus for shooting his allies in the back if they fight in the wrong way or with insufficient fervor for the Party itself.

Johnny P., protecting Ze Party from the real enemy -
those who threaten his quisling sinecure.
One of his recent tirades against those whose dedication to liberty is more important than their dedication to his fellow Party apparatchiks was a lament that evangelicals hadn’t done enough to stop the alt-right.  Specifically, a tweet linking to this a Radix Journal essay, which calls for members of the alt-right to abandon their pro-life stance.  This is one of those cases where a simple lie requires more thought and analysis than Twitter permits in its 140 characters.  It won’t take much thought, this being one of Podhoretz’s more profoundly stupid attacks on the alt-right, and that’s clearing a pretty high bar.

The first and most obvious objection to Podhoretz’s characterization of the alt-right as a movement filled with pro-abortion crusaders is that his evidence consists of an essay attempting to convince the alt-right to abandon its staunch pro-life stance.  Let me parse that down a bit more for people whose intellectual capacity is stunted by frequent and repeated exposure to Podhoretz's enervating blather: if the people you’re writing for need to be convinced to change to be in favor of abortion…that means they are NOT pro-abortion.

That should do it.  No more needs to be said.

For those of you with enough intellect to see through Podhoretz’s ham fisted attempts to purge the right of any effective resistance to his masters on the left, we should look a little deeper.  To do so, we’ll need to understand what the alt-right really is.

But first, and to stay on the “Podhoretz is an idiot” point, let’s look at what it is not.

The alt-right is not a top-down organization whereby a few authority figures issue decrees that we foot soldiers parrot back en masse.  It’s not an ancient and creaking hidebound institution whose tenets have been hashed out, written in stone, and then constantly betrayed by the authority figures like those mentioned in the previous sentence.  It's not Republicans.  Those are the sorts of movements that Podhoretz has grown up and grown old with, and those are the only sorts of movements that Podhoretz understands.

When confronted with a movement like the alt-right, he can only analyze that movement through the keyhole camera of his previous experience, and it is by way of this lumbering and inaccurate understanding of the modern political landscape that Podhoretz comes to his false understanding of the alt-right.

Instead, the alt-right is a loose coalition of small and fractious groups and lone individuals united under a common banner.  In addition to the unifying principles of liberty, non-interventionist foreign policy, and nationalism, each group brings its own political bugaboos to the table.  It may be white nationalism, it may be pro-abortionism, it may be advocates for full blown Christian theocracy in America.  Whatever.

It’s useful for the globalist media, and their lapdogs like Podhoretz, to whitewash the alt-right ideology by selecting choice slices of the movement to elevate to the status of ‘leadership’, but as with any other story on the front page of the New York Times, that is a carefully crafted narrative built on choice facts designed to influence readers to support the agenda of globalists like Podhoretz.
This is not a new thing for guys like Podhoretz.  They have long policed their right flank, purging it of anyone not sufficiently willing to cave-in and surrender to the inevitable victory of the left.  Like sandbaggers and doomsayers through history, Podhoretz advocates a noble and doomed opposition that contents itself with dealing temporary reverses to the enemy, and a bit of minor sabotage here and there, but never a full-on resistance or fight.  Why, if the conservatives lose the fight, he advocates, then liberals will get what they want, so it’s best to simply not fight and give them want they want up front.  That’ll teach them.

If you needed a third reason to ignore Podhoretz's inane scribbling, and as further evidence for the preceding thought, bear in mind the long and unbroken string of surrenders, losses, and outright failure of the establishment conservatives on the issue of abortion.  When it comes to the actual  results of that fight, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between supporting a guaranteed loser like Podhoretz and supporting greasy unequivocal supporters of Planned Parenthood like, PBS, or NPR.  Consider the establishment right’s position of constant loss but dang we tried and didn’t win the wrong way, which is its central position.  While the alt-right may have outliers like Radix desperately churning the water for a shift towards pro-abortion positions, they are a distinct minority. 

Physiognomy is real.
Given a choice between a door labeled Podhoretz, which is known to contain a tiger that will eat you alive, and a door labeled Radix, which contains a safely ignored paper tiger…I’ll take the latter every time.

If you love the idea of nobly and ineffectively losing when it comes to halting the murder of the unborn, by all means, continue to support Podhoretz.  But given Team Podhoretz’s complete and utter failure on the issue over the last four decades, those of us who want to win that fight must be willing to try something new.  That something new is the alt-right, and the more of us who are willing to stand up and push the alt-right towards the defense of  life and liberty for Americans, the born and the unborn, the more likely we will be to defeat those who fight to implement pro-abortion policies.  You know, like Planned Parenthood, Radix, and John Podhoretz.  Three murderous monsters in a pod.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Adventure Game Inspiration: The Cassock and the Sword

The retro movement that has been elevating the RPG scene for the last decade owes much to people looking back to the fantasy and sci-fi scene of days gone by.  Whether it’s the OSRmovement, the various diggings into the Appendix N list, or P. Alexander’sbroader look at fantasy and sci-fi short story magazines from the 1940s, the investigations into the roots of the stories that inspired adventure gaming has been both informative and inspirational.

Despite all the discussion of magazines and stories dedicated to explicitly fantasy and sci-fi stories, one important area that hasn’t seen quite as much activity is the historical non-fiction adventure market.  That’s not to say that it has gone completely undiscussed; everyone knows that D&D owes a considerable debt to juggernauts of the genre like Zorro, The Three Musketeers, and the stories of Robin Hood.  But if the lesser known works of the pulp sff magazines contributed to the genre and are worth a look, then it’s entirely possible that the lesser known works of other fictional adventurers contributed to the genre and are worth a look as well.  After all, the line between historical fiction and fantasy fiction is often as blurry as the line between fantasy and science fiction.

To that end, I looked through the archive of freely available pulp magazines from PulpMags.Org and downloaded the November 1946 issue of Mammoth Adventure specifically because the cover art and story featured a man swashbuckling his way through New Spain.  You can’t get much more inspirational than a story featuring a fighting holy man and a swashbuckler fighting against a corrupt city government.
A monk climbing a wall
while sword fighting? Can't
get much pulpier than that.
In Tom W. Blackburn’s “The Cassock and the Sword”, that’s exactly what you get when Juan Espadin, impoverished noble from the Old Country, crosses a member of the powerful local ruling family.  His first day in town he rescues an older woman being abused by an old man, only to find that he has inadvertently spoiled an attempt by the underground resistance to capture a member of that corrupt ruling family by killing the man.   Desperate to escape the city, he follows the old woman, revealed to be a sultry young woman named Pepita, to a jungle camp that serves as the headquarters for the resistance.  There he crosses swords with the titular sword-fighting fighting monk, Paco, and his support is bought by Paco and Pepita with promises to aid him in his journey to Panama if he firsts helps free the city from the grip of the despicable Lozan family.

What follows is a fast tale featuring traps, counter-ambushes, captures, and escapes, all featuring the flashing steel, faceless minions, and dastardly villains you expect from a swashbuckling story.  Is it fantasy?  Beyond the fictional setting and characters, no.  Is it inspirational for fantasy adventure gaming?  You better believe it. 

This story gives a classic example of a corrupt city government and the way in which one powerful family can use the power of the purse and city guard to cause all sorts of mayhem for player characters.  It does so in a simple enough manner for any DM to implement at his table.  It shows how death is not the only fate to follow poor dice rolls – a good capturing, tossing in the castle dungeon, and villainesque, “I’ll give you the night to think on how I’ll kill you in the morning,” can lead to thrilling escapes, more sword fighting, and everything you want from a tabletop adventure game.
It even includes a less-than-holy cleric whose service to god has more to do with a well handled blade than with a sacramental delivery service.  He may not be terribly pious, technically he may not even be a member of the clergy whose robes he stole, but the stout Brother Paco serves God in his own way, and it’s a way in which any cleric PC should be proud to serve.

The moral this story is that the Prophet Gygax, upon whose writings all others are built, used adventure fiction of all sorts as inspiration for his game.  Although historical fiction gets barely a nod in the sacramental books, it can serve as a catalyst for any game of adventure from the shores of Middle Earth to the stars of the Polity.  Go thou forth and do likewise.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Wargaming: Upgraded

Is it strange to include a number of posts about a non-writing hobby on a blog founded specifically to track one's progress in pursuing writing as a paid hobby?  Fine, I contain multiples, there's your literary reference for the day, now let's get to the good stuff.

It's been a long time since I bought something solely for the purposes of improving my wargaming game.  Wargames of the map and counter variety are largely self contained, so why would you need to buy anything extra?

These days I've been buying more pocket games, small and compact wargames that can be played in an hour and are sold in zip-lock bags.  This leads to less games played on rigid cardboard maps and more games played on folded paper maps, which can be a real hassle.  It doesn't look so bad when you just have two or three counters on the map, as in this illustrative photo, but once your stacks reach seven or eight counters, and are spread all over that continental divide, the slippage can drive a man crazy.

To fix this problem, I finally went out and bought a cheap piece of clear plexiglass sheeting.  An 18-inch by 24-inch sheet costs about ten bucks, and can be scored and cut in half using a boxcutter.  That gives you two sheets, one for use at home and one for use during those lunch games at the office, that will fully cover a standard ledger sized map (11- by 17-inch map).

After scoring and peeling off the label, it forces the map to lay flat and provides a much cleaner and easier playing surface.  It's so nice I can't believe it took me this long to get around to it.  Look how much more convenient it is, no tiltage, no slippage, it's great!  This leaves the mind free to focus on the rules, the tactics, and the opponent.

It's a small thing, but such victories pile up to create a more pleasant and rewarding life.  I'm ready for sipping mint juleps on the planation porch swing now.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

On Vance and Hernstrom, A Comparative Defense

In a recent post, I stated that Schuyler Hernstrom's "Images of the Goddess" is better than Jack Vance's "Dying Earth".  That might be controversial.  It wasn't stated lightly, nor simply as click-bait.  Let me expound on it a bit.

Jack Vance is a great author.  He does an outstanding job suffusing the Dying Earth novels with the oppressive atmosphere of a world grinding to a slow and evitable doom.  That heavy gloom serves as a powerful counterpoint to the dry humor and wit of the tales themselves, but as a permanent undercurrent, it leaves the reader feeling that, despite all the sound and movement of the tale, it’s all pretty pointless given the impending cataclysm that is literally just over the horizon…until the angry red sun rises in the morning and once again reminds everyone that the end is near.

That sort of bleak outlook might be a useful corrective in the early days of a nation’s greatness.  In the middle decades of the twentieth century, when America strode forth out of decades of relative neutrality and blundered about the earth healthy, wealthy, and full of its own hubris, one needed such reminder that all such things are fleeting. 

We don’t live in that world.
We live a world where warnings of potential collapse generate clicks and drive voters to the polls.  Your own personal politics don’t matter in this regard.  The leaders of your faction may believe in fuses burning on debt bombs. They may issue pronouncements of global environmental collapse.  They may warn of the dire consequences of an American retreat from the world stage, or a resurgence of American warmongering, or even both at the same time.  We are all, regardless of our tribe, bombarded with this message over and over and over again from points both high (hello, Hollywood and D.C.) and low (hello, family and co-workers), and it all serves to press an atmosphere of gloom upon us as stark as that of the red sun of Vance’s Dying Earth.

If you feel that pressure, and escape fiction is your relief of choice, then you won’t find any in Vance’s Dying Earth.  All you’ll find is another world wallowing in the same gloom as your own.
In times such as ours and those of the Dying Earth, trust erodes and people become stingy with everything from their time to their wealth to their charity.  The autumn leaves tell us all to gather what we can and prepare for the coming winter.  Granted, the greedy and grasping misers are always a part of every culture, but their numbers grow and everyone begins to follow their lead as they clutch at any resource available.  It’s not an obvious or conscious shift, but rather a subtle and incremental shift in the culture.  And it’s a shift that helps lead even more weight to the daily struggle.

Into the dying earth steps Cugel the Clever, a man who possesses no qualms about lying, cheating, or stealing his way into any valuable object that crosses his path.  We all know men like him, and in oppressive times the number of Cugel’s swell.  They are just one more battle to fight in our daily lives, and even as we laugh at or admire Cugel’s cleverness, he serves as a reminder of the real world Cugels we face every day.  Like the world of the Dying Earth, Cugel gives us no respite from our own daily grind.
This is not to say that Vance is a terrible writer.  His sprawling adventures feature some of the most colorful characters, creatures, and wizardry ever put to paper.  Aside from the oppressive tone of the setting, Vance’s prose stand tall in the field, and his tales are enormously enjoyable.  This is only to say that Vance’s writing in the Dying Earth stories utilizes a dark tone works better as a counterpoint to brighter days.  The counterpoint for those who live in the twilight times, who feel in the wind a darkness gathering, is lighter tales of adventure that use doom as a spice rather than a main ingredient.

Schuyler Hernstrom is one such writer.  Schuyler’s tales sprawl across continents and environments, feature distinct and colorful characters thrown together by fate, and even include the wry, dry humor that gives Vance’s writing such power.  The difference is that Schuyler’s settings, particularly those in his two stories featured in Cirsova, include an element of hope and optimism in a brighter future.  They are infused with the fun spirit of adventure that reminds the reader that anything is possible, in stark contrast to Vance’s reminder that everything is transitory.

A case could be made that Schuyler’s work is derivative, more than one review of “Images of the Goddess” has pointed to an obvious Vancian influence, but if it is, then Schuyler is standing on the shoulders of the Vancian giant and taking Vance’s Dying Earth to a place it’s never been – a happy place.  That subtle shift of mood may strike the nihilists among us as a step backwards, but at a time when civilization itself seems to be sliding backwards, it strikes this reviewer as a shift towards hope and optimism at a time when such a shift is sorely needed.

Holding Schuyler up as the next step in evolution among short fantasy fiction writers, as taking Jack Vance’s style and moving it forward, may be a controversial statement.  You may disagree, and more power to you.
But at the end of the day, at least be open to the idea that someday, somebody will surpass Vance.  Don’t fall into the nostalgic trap of believing that the classics are the best there are or ever will be.  That alternative leads to the notion that of Vance as the end of history from a fantasy short fiction perspective, and what future could be bleaker than a future in which fantasy fiction has already peaked and its best days lie in the past? 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Review: Images of the Goddess, From Cirsova 2

P. Alexander is the guy behind the Short Review series posted at Castalia House, in which he reviews tales originally printed in classic pulp magazines such as Planet Stories.  His series, along with Jeffro Johnson’s Appendix N series and repeated warnings not to read anything written before 1980 inspired my own recent jaunts into the less fantastic ‘sweats’ and ‘slicks’ of the first half of the 20th century. 

P. Alexander is also the crazy bastard behind my new favorite short fiction magazine, Cirsova.

His new magazine means that somebody can now do to him what he’s been doing to the old writers – that old grinding wheel of Karma just keeps on a-turning – so let’s see if he can take what he dishes out. 

The cynical imp that lives in my mechanical heart wants to stick it to Cirsova good and hard, but he doesn’t make it easy.  It’s hard to find a story in either issue that deserves a bad review.  Instead, we’ll just have to start with my favorite story from Issue #2, the novella, Images of the Goddess, by Schuyler Hernstrom. 

Aw yeah.  I'll be in
my niche in the wall
of the cave, baby.
Images of the Goddess doesn’t start out very promising; the first few paragraphs set the stage from a third person, omniscient point of view, and briefly explain the founding and operation of the remote monastery that eventually serves as the catalyst for the following adventure.  From there, the story moves into the tale proper by introducing Plom, a humble acolyte in service to the Goddess, hanging from a rope above a thousand foot drop.  Now that’s the start of an interesting story.

The tale of the monastery is written in an engaging style with a wry sense of humor, and it includes the sort of dry humor that doesn’t hold your hand the way a Discworld joke does, so this is another case of me praising something with faint damnation, but it’s worth pointing out that this story starts out fun before it kicks into second gear and things get really interesting. 

Plom, the young and pious acolyte uses a bit of chicanery to save his best friend from being assigned a dangerous mission to recover a valuable artifact from a distant and dangerous jungle.  It’s a great introduction to the character as it shows him as an innocent young man who isn’t as pious as he’d like to believe, and one with a natural devious streak. 

Within a day of setting out on his quest, Plom rescues a wizard named Drur of the Blue Orb from a barbarian tribe and secures his support in the quest.  Drur turns out to be a flamboyant shyster cut from the same cloth as Cugel the Clever.  His loyalty is driven primarily by avarice and an inadvertent oath enforced by the magic artifact from which he draws his title.  Although these are the primary drivers for Drur’s actions, later events seem to indicate that he develops a soft spot for the young and naïve Plom. 

A day after the wizard’s rescue the two men are recaptured, and find themselves assigned a female barbarian named Sihma who is to serve them as a warrior slash chaperone slash prison guard.   Like Drur, she is pressed into the quest, but this time by her chief, and her honor and pride require her to do everything she can to see the quest through to completion. 

The quest carries the trio through the slave pits of a decadent city, down a dangerous jungle jungle river, and into the depths of an ancient ruin.  Along the way they contend with massive beasts and the world’s greatest swordsman, Wim Tid.  Or swordsthing.  Wim Tid is actually a swordsinsect – a man sized, four armed insect gladiator, to be precise.

The character of Wim Tid, a man/thing with his own way of thinking and alien, but understandable, motivation serves as a great excuse to mention that the world of Images of the Goddess is filled with numerous small touches that constantly remind the reader that it takes place in an alien world.  It may be our world flung far into the future, hints of this are sprinkled throughout the tale, but if so then it is our world changed in ways that make it much like, but in small ways, very different from our own.  These little touches provide constant little surprises that make reading this story a joy. 

As if those little touches aren’t enough, the constant jockeying for position among the trio, and among those that they meet, forces a number of compromises and deals that are fun to watch play out.  This constant back and forth reminded me of the film version of Maverick in that even people who genuinely like each other are always looking for an angle to get a better deal.  These are great methods of adding complications and small scenes of conflict that seamlessly flow along with the greater story of the quest for the artifact, which itself serves as a hilarious reversal of expectations. 

You're not going to get any more detail out of this review.  There are just too many twists and surprises that you need to read for yourself.  As with the best of anything, if you really want to know how good this story is, you're just going to have to experience it for yourself.

Long story short: Images of the Goddess reads like a Dying Earth tale without the oppressive atmosphere or Cugel the Clever’s constant malicious conniving.  Hernstrom’s prose harkens back to Vance, but the descriptions lack Vance’s frequent vagueness, and have a much lighter touch.  On the whole, this tale is even better than Dying Earth.  And that’s really saying something.