Friday, September 30, 2016

A Retraction, A Clarification, and Some Inspiration

A flurry of discussion followed my last post, and a man whom I deeply respect (Daddy Warpig)offered up this bit of constructive criticism:
Pundit believes the OSR, and D&D as a whole, is too tied to Western Fantasy tropes. He thinks Appendix N keeps the OSR mired in the same-old, same-old, basically regurgitating D&D over and over, producing game after game (ACK! LFP! 30 other clones!) that are little more than slight variations on D&D, with no true innovations in setting or mechanics. He opposes this, hence his OSR game was Arrows of Indra, dungeoncrawling in ancient India.

His disdain for N is based on a genuine philosophical difference, a genuine desire to see the OSR innovate, not economic concerns. It's unfortunate that the "Pundit just cares about money" became the common belief in the Pulp Revolution crowd.
Daddy Warpig spent some time panning in the gravel bed of Pundit's ravings and came up with a golden nugget there.  Forget all of the RPG Pundit's bleatings and wargarbl, his proxy makes an excellent point.  His selective data bias makes him blind to the exact same calls for innovation that come from within the Pulp Revolution.  Hell, it had a full blown discussion about how the "SF/F Counter-Reformation" makes for a more inclusive and precise description, and only abandoned that title because it is too wordy and esoteric.  People who approach the Pulpsters in good faith will see that themselves, and all the hand-holding in the world won't help those so blind to the Pulp Revolution's aims and goals that they refuse to see.

Regardless, I was wrong to ascribe motive where it was not clear.  I officially retract my accusation that the RPGPundit hates the Appendix N because it competes with his won products for RPG inspiration and tabletime.  The previous blog post has been amended accordingly.

That said...even as I inhaled to point out where Daddy Warpig missed an important point, he continued:
Pundit may be right about the variety of D&D clones in the OSR, but he is DEAD WRONG about the value of Appendix N for readers, however. as I said on Twitter, for a lot of people, Appendix N isn't about gaming anymore. It's about rediscovering the classic roots of SF/F. And for a lot of those people, it's about reinvigorating SF/F tales with the energy and fun of those same classics.

I'm not saying he's RIGHT, I'm saying he's SINCERE. There's a big difference there. I think the lack of innovation in the OSR is that people aren't going back to the pulps ENOUGH. There's so much more wildness and weirdness and awesomeness there that could make for some very cool roleplaying games.
It's not rocket science: better source material leads to better new material.
There you go.  That's it in a nutshell. The Pulp Revolution isn't calling for the train to return to a particular station and halt there forever more.  The Pulp Revolution is calling for the train to return to a string of stations and then set out along a different set of tracks than the one that brought us the bleak and insipid SF/F culture that we have today.

We can do better, but we should learn from the masters, not from the guys who imitate the guys who imitate the masters.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Jeffro's Appendix N, A Brief Primer for New Recruits

Welcome to the Pulp Revolution. 

If you have your dog-eared copy of "A Princess of Mars" handy, you're in the right place.  How we got here is a bit of a long story, and you may have some questions.  What follows is a brief summary of how we got here - a very brief summary - which will likely lead to more questions.  Good.  Keep asking them.  Keep looking back into the original source documents...that's kind of what we do around here.  And we have enough faith in our arguments, our works, and our faith to have no fear of the light.

But be warned:  As you delve into the dank corners of the movement, you'll come to see that much of the gospel written below vastly understates the case for the Pulp Revolution.  Though our cause is just and our victory written in the starts, the situation really is worse than you can possibly imagine.

Jeffro read a series of books written pre-1980 that inspired D&D and noticed some rather striking things about them.  Instead of doing the sane, rational thing - thinking, "Huh, this guy makes some rather strange leaps, and I disagree with many of his conclusions, but as a self-confessed fan of sf/f literature, it's at least worth thinking about and talking about these things" - the internet went full "burn the heretic!" hate machine on him.  We're talking Kony 2012 levels of rage, which would have been horrible if it wasn't mincing skinny-fat fanfic writers and barely literate game nerds doing the raging.

He didn't realize that one blogger liking the style of sf/f from pre-1980 would put him in between attacks from the book scene (they realized people liking old books would mean buying less of their own books) and from the gaming scene (they realized people using old books for inspiration would mean buying less of their hack RPG supplements and settings).  [Edit:  The motives behind the attack were many, varied, and mysterious.  More details are available here.] 

Protests from the gaming community are best exemplified by these blog posts
As for the 'it' what set off the literary crowd?  That's a pretty big kettle of fish to unwrap*.  Long story short:  The nerds wanted respect so they abandoned the timeless virtues championed in the old tales in favor of Oprah-level drivel and self-absorbed literary tricks...but with dragons!  They went dark and gritty, because that's more 'grown up' than heroism and virtue.  In the process they dragged everything good about sf/f into the mud, and they did it while no one was looking for reasons that have more to do with real world politicking than anything else.  It was a pretty bleak time for anyone unwilling to engage in the latest Two Minute Hate or who cared that good quality took a back seat to good politics.  We had so little to read we turned our back on the darkness.

Well, along comes old Jeffro flicking on the lights, pulling up the rug, and showing the world all those scurrying creepy crawlies for what they truly are, and the Gollums and orcs who curse the day ball reacted with all the spittle and anger you'd expect. He started asking where the good stuff was now that the orcish gatekeepers had been superceded by self-publishing, and wouldn't you know it, a ragtag group of misfits and ne'er do wells rallied to the Howardian, Burroughsian, and Nortonian banner we waved and started doing just that.  The last year or so has seen the blossoming of a nascent movement to look back to the pulps and build a better literary culture that produces works for today that remain true to their spirit.  We fans of the old masters have gone from wandering lonely in the 'nothing to read' wilderness to an embarrassment of riches recently, and it's only getting better all the time.

If you are new to the revolution, you're in for an exciting time.

For more information, this is a good starting post for Jeffro's message that so enraged the world of supposed sf/f fans:

And a bit of the old smash and bash:

How about a little bit more?

Those are some good starting points for the history.  If you want to see the future, take a look at Cirsova Magazine:

That magazine is the best exemplar of the old ways done modern that I've yet to come across.  Unlike loud mouthed bloggers who gamble nothing but a few hours of free time, a whole bunch of electrons, and a non-existent reputation, the genius behind Cirsova is betting cold, hard cash that people are longing for a return to the good stuff.

Well I'm not longing for more of the good stuff!  Not anymore.  I found it.  Right here, in...

The Pulp Revolution!

Viva John Carter!

*Yeah, I mixed that metaphor, sometimes you have to know when to break the rules, and as a self-professed member of the Pulp Revolution, I ain't afraid of breaking rules.  Gimme a reason, and I'll dangle a participle from the nearest tree, too.  That's just the sort of thing we revolutionaries do.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

E-Book Covers - Let's See Some Action Out There!

A great blog post came over my transom today, and every e-book publisher needs to read. 

James Harris, of Auxiliary Memory writes:
I’ve always loved dust jacket art on science fiction hardbacks. I also love cover art on science fiction paperbacks, and cover art on science fiction magazines. But what the hell is happening with covers for ebooks? I can understand when self-published authors create their own covers and they look awful.
If you look at the cover art from 2016 – here’s a selection at the old SF Signal site, and look at a selection of cover art from the 1960s and 1970s at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, you’ll notice, at least in my mind, that cover art is less creative.
I hasten to point out that e-book covers face challenges that print editions don't.  Pixel space is limited and the need for scalable titles that show up against high contrast backgrounds at any resolution aren't as important for print editions.  Anyone hiding lazy cover design behind that excuse deserves the low sales volume they get - just because it's harder to do it, that doesn't make it any less important.  Particularly for those of us toiling in trenches of our own digging.

And it doesn't have to be expensive.  If you have no talent for art, an evocative cover is just five bucks and 24 hours away.  Here's a list of people willing to do it for you.  Everything I produce goes through a round of proofreading, and the service is easier to use than eBay.  If you're paying to eliminate typos (and why wouldn't you?) then you can just as easily do the same with your cover art.

Even those of you with great cover art already can always use the reminder, people judge books by their cover.  If you publish your own works put at least as much time, effort, and thought into the cover as you do the first chapter.  It's everyone's first contact with your book - make it a good one.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Space Pirates Are In My Wheelhouse

It turns out spending time on social media poking around the fringes of modern publishing has blown up my reading queue.  I haven't had this much great stuff rain down on me since Matt moved to town my sophomore year of high school and brought his father's full basement of sf/f with him.  Forget the local library, his dad's collection would have kept me busy for a lifetime if college hadn't gotten in the way.  As a result of this recent embarrassment of riches, you're probably going to see a few short story reviews thrown on the blog as short filler, as it looks like the bulk of my long fiction reading will be dedicated to the Puppy of the Month Book Club.  Filler like this post.
The Fourth Fleet, by Russell Newquist, is a short science-fiction story that appears in the collection, Make Death Proud to Take Us.  I had hoped to review this entire collection of short stories as a whole, but it's been a few weeks now, and it's better to get one short review out while the reading is still fresh in my mind. 
Full disclosure:  Russell is a good guy.  Well...his online persona strikes me as a good guy, and that's the only way I've ever encountered him.  In fact, I bought this book because I like what he brings to the schoolyard bull session.  This review might be colored by the fact that I like him and want to see him do well.  Whether that makes this more of an impartial review or more of a naked shill is up to you.

With all that pre-amble out of the way, let's get to the good stuff, and The Fourth Fleet definitely ranks among the good stuff.
The Fourth Fleet is exactly the sort of throwback adventure story that churns my butter.  It starts out the tale of three brothers clinging to life and scrambling to return to civilization after having been intercepted by a fleet of space pirates, having had their cargo of planetary gas and all their food stolen, and then left for dead.  The blue collar guys are hampered by real world physics and the need to account for things like mass v. thrust, planetary orbits, and other real-world technical challenges.  Somehow, they manage to cobble together a solution, and limp back towards the inner planets of the solar system, and with them they bring information critical to stopping the recent plague of space piracy.
Somehow, the pirate fleet in question has developed a revolutionary method of transport that allows them to pretty much ignore the physics of space travel.  Every time the space cops get a lock on the raiders and set an intercept course, they arrive at the calculated rendezvous only to have the buccaneers actually show up on the far side of sol raiding yet another fleet of colony ships or gas miners.  Solving the mystery of how the pirates manage to defy the laws of physics as currently understood places this story in the hardest of hard sci-fi, and actually drives the action as well.
This is one of those stories that is just long enough.  It gets in, tells its story, and gets out.  A less skilled writer, or one with a contract to fill, could have inflated the story here to fill out a smallish paperback, but that would have required numerous subplots and threads, pointless politicking, and a lot of wasted time.  This is exactly the sort of story that fits well within the short story dynamic, and it is nice to see that people are still doing just that. 
For my part, this story came about at just the right time.  One of the audio-books I have in post-production right now is a collection of short stories edited by Tom Kratman and Vox Day, Riding the Red Horse. That collection contains a short non-fiction piece you may remember called, The Hot Equations, by Ken Burnside, in which he explains the realities of thermodynamics, demonstrates how hard sci-fi should operate within those realities, and then suggests ways that they can be used to drive conflict.  It's as much a polemic against the ubiquity of soft sci-fi as it is a challenge to writers to step up to the hard sci-fi plate and do better.
Reading The Fourth Fleet provides a clinic on how a writer can step up to that plate and hit a solid home run.  If this post doesn't have enough asides for you yet, check out Russell's own blog where he confirms that I didn't luck into some grand connection - he admits to writing this story as a direct response to that challenge.  At the end of his post, he states:
I leave it to the readers to decide if the story honors the science of “The Hot Equations” – or if it’s any good.
 This reader decided that it does, and it is.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Short Fiction: The Challenger's Garland

The first short story in Schuyler Herntrom's collection, Thune's Vision, is The Challenger's Garland, is the worst thing I've ever read by Mr. Hernstrom.

If you've been following this blog you know that doesn't tell you much.  His stories included in the first two issues of Cirsova Magazine, were brilliant, and this very brief tale doesn't reach those heights.  It's still a great story and highly recommended.

The plot is as epic as it is simple, Death's Champion rides forth to challenge the unbeaten White Knight.  It's a basic fight between the white hat and the black hat with the former representing everything good and decent and the latter representing only death and destruction, and yet the story reflects the myriad subtleties that lurk within the details of that constant battle on a fallen earth.

The story does feel like a bit of an experiment - can one strip away the chrome that is normally added to modern versions of a battle between black and white and still wind up with an interesting story? It also reads like a first time author playing with the concept of a fairy tale tone, pace, and theme.  These are not complaints, merely observations.  If anything, they add to the charm of the piece.

Here's a brief excerpt that jumped out at me:
In the Kinniverse jungle the apes scattered from his shadow, scurrying up the massive trees in which stood their wondrous city.  They peered down from latticed towers, unwilling to shower the lone horseman with missiles, as was their usual practice.  The towering trees shrank as the jungle ended.
He entered a land of rolling hills and verdant pastures.
Molok dismounted, walking through a field of flowers.  The grass was still fresh with dew.  Ahead he saw the silhouette of a young woman.  She turned upon the hearing his heavy steps.
"I hear the step of an armored knight.  Are you from the citadel?"
Molok looked into her eyes, two orbs of milky white without iris or pupil. 
That kind of easy and evocative writing, that taps into the timeless tropes of myth and legend, is a joy to read. 

For another take on this book, here's The Frisky Pagan.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Let's Get Something Straight Here, People

When you come around these parts, and you see a lot of links to the Puppy of the Month Club, recommendations for The Good Stuff, and pointers to blogs by The Usual Suspects?  There's a reason for that, and no, it's not because I'm desperate for filler posts or trying to earn clicks by glomming onto the cool-kids crowd or even trying to ride on the coat-tails of my betters. 

This blog started off as an, I-Wanna-Be-A-Successful-Writer blog, and has subtly morphed into more of a, I-Want-You-To-Be-A-Successful-Writer blog.  The point of view of the blog remains that of a guy trying to escape the cubicle farm, but the content is more focused on reading and sorting the good from the bad.  There's a lot of great writers out there who deserve a lot more attention than they'll ever get from the big publishing houses, and most of them are part-timers writing in brief snatches when they aren't putting food on the table.  If I can direct a few more sales their way, and that helps keep them motivated to sit down and bang on the keyboard for a few more minutes every night?  Mission accomplished.

More than that, though, this blog represents another node in the greater community of readers who appreciate the rising tide of fun adventure fiction written by people who love sf/f for its own sake rather than as another club to wield against the latest social boogeymen.  It's by no means a central node, but it stands as a signal booster to support the efforts of everyone from the lone guy self-publishing his work through Amazon to the growing indie-publisher thumbing his nose at the big boys.

You see those links in the preceding paragraph?  Even if you didn't click on them, somewhere there's a bot zipping down the threads of the internet, and it will.  It will think to itself, "Hey, here's somebody else that thinks Justin's blog is worth linking to, I'd better move him up in the rankings."  Then when the next kid does a search for sci-fi writer, Justin shows up a lot sooner, and there's a better chance that this relative unknown picks up another reader.  Each link is just one little data point, but you put enough of them together and eventually you don't just have an improved search engine rating, you have a culture.

That's what we're building here - a counter-reformation of the world of sci-fi and fantasy, a revolution of pulp fiction, if you will.  As the new guys on the block, we can't sit around waiting for others to do the heavy lifting.  No publisher is going to hand a fat contract to the sorts of authors that we like.  No publisher is going to pay for fake tweets to market our crew.  No publisher is going to reach down and pluck a pulp revolutionary out of obscurity, fete them like royalty, and cart them around the country selling their work.

Which is great!  It gives us - authors and fans alike - a lot more freedom of movement, a lot more freedom to experiment, and a lot more freedom to choose.  They have to be stodgy and conservative to protect their interests, where we don't have anything to lose.  Except for the few moments it took to write up this blog post - and that's a small price to pay to lay another brick in the road to better authors, better fiction, and a better culture.

I'm a fan of the better culture that being built, and don't mind praising the guys who are building that culture.  If that results in my coming off as a bit of a carnival barker for works that fit into that culture, so be it.  There's some really amazing freaks in this freakshow, and I intend to do what I can to lure the townies in to take a look.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Signal Boost: Geek Gab With Schuyler Hernstrom

Pictured above: Me
I make no apologies nor excuses for being a raging Schuyler Hernstrom fanboy.  (The only reason that I haven't already read everything the man has written is that I'm savoring the wait.  That, and the Puppy of the Month Book Club dictating my reading list and sucking up most of my spare reading time.) So of course I'd listen to the interview that Schuyler did with Geek Gab.

That interview, below, has only enhanced my opinion of the man.  His surfer-cool attitude towards the new take on yesterday's blender approach to sci-fi is a refreshing change from the usual fare, and his point about going off and doing your own thing and letting the CHORFs do theirs hit me particularly hard.  Stoking the fuel of righteous anger at what the...expletive deleteds, have done to my beloved sci-fi and fantasy is all well and good, but only as a catalyst for the creation of work that makes more worthy heirs to the forerunners of sf/f than the drek peddled by the people who live east of the Hudson.  As the true heirs to the throne, all we have to do is keep producing and pimping the pulp revolutionary style, and trust readers to recognize the huge gap in quality between message fiction and fun fiction.  The truth will out.

I realize this video may be old news to many readers, having dropped an eon ago in internet time - five whole days! But it's well worth a listen.  Just fast forward past Daddy Warpig's intro - his affectations taper off after a minute or two and he becomes much more sufferable.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Ten Gentle Opportunities, by Jeff Duntemann

Last Friday's post was essentially a call to arms for readers who enjoy the counter-culture movement within science fiction and fantasy to take a few risks and try novels by newer authors.  It is young, this backlash against modern identitarian...stories?  (It's hard to use the term 'stories' when so often they are little more than characters bouncing off each other and pining for surcease from the crushing ennui of a life unfilled thanks entirely to factors and ideologies completely outside the protagonist's control and oh my God why am I reading this somebody lock up my shotgun before I stick it in my mouth.)  And that youth is both blessing and curse.

These new(ish) writers, backtracking to pre-1980 works and charting their own destinations, are taking readers to new shores.  That sense that anything goes, provides readers with an inherent sense of adventure and discovery that you just won't find in fiction written to adhere to the publishing houses' established and approved literary paths of today.  The downside of living through this rebirth in adventure and exploration is that most of the guys writing the good stuff have a very limited back catalog.  Many of these authors have grown out of the crop of readers tired of the prevailing zeitgeist spitting on their hands, rolling up their sleeves, and hoisting the black flag by writing their own damn stories, thank you very much. 

Jeff Duntemann is one such author.  Sort of.  He has been writing for decades.  His first published science fiction work was way back in 1974.  He has written reams of non-fiction books about computer programming and technical articles and other things, and a fair few sci-fi short stories as well.  If you check Amazon, you'll find just six titles, two of which are short story collections.  That's not a whole lot of books, and given his major focus on non-fiction, it's understandable that you may not have heard of him.  At least one of Those titles fits right in with the nascent counter-counter-culture.

Enter Ten Gentle Opportunities.

I read this book cold.  I knew nothing about it save what could be gleaned from the cover.

Imagine my surprise when the book opens with a wizard-slash-conman, Stypek, fleeing a powerful sorcerer through the streets of a fantasy city.  Stypek had used magic of a mundane nature - a deck of marked playing cards - to cheat his pursuer out of a powerful artifact and winds up fleeing the much more powerful sorcerer by opening a portal to another dimension. 

Incidentally, that powerful artifact has ten charges that work as a kind of doomsday timer counting down to the final climax.  It's a neat trick that ramps up the tension in the book in a novel way.

After Stypek is dragged through the portal to another dimension, the book shifts gears to a modern day story that weaves together the tale of a computer programmer and his ex-wife with the tale of a small group of proto-AI programs.  So abrupt was the shift that it left me wondering if this was actually a book of short stories.  Old Stypek doesn't drop into the 'real universe' until several chapters have passed.

Once Stypek reappears, things get complicated.  I may have missed an important plot point somewhere in here - that or Duntemann plays his cards a little too close to his chest.  Something goes very wrong with the programming at the world's first fully automated copy machine factory, and all three of our protagonist groups, wizard, programming couple, and AIs, fight to unravel the mystery of what went wrong, and then fight to stop the force behind what went wrong.

In a lot of ways, this book reminds me of Nick Cole's wonderful Ctrl-Alt-Revolt.  An AI goes berserk and the only way to stop it is to break into its compound and fight through an army of robots while simultaneously beating the thing inside the digital universe.  Where Ctrl-Alt-Delete uses the narrative short cut of placing the software fight inside an MMORPG, Ten Gentle Opportunities effortlessly slides back and forth between a more Sims style narrative and evocative descriptions of pure program-on-program battles where code itself is both weapon, shield, and battleground. 

This book differs from Ctrl-Alt-Revolt in that the ultimate bad guy is something of a mystery.  It's never entirely clear exactly what the stakes are in the fight, and the human characters aren't quite likable enough to carry the load.  For my money, the AI characters are much more likable than their human counterparts, and it was the question of their fate that kept me turning pages.  That might be a function of my own limited intellect.  Clever readers may solve the mystery long before this reviewer did; in which case clever readers will draw even more enjoyment out of Ten Gentle Opportunities

This is a book that could only have been written by an experience programmer.  Duntemann seamlessly presents a long string of puzzles, mysteries, and complications within both meat space and virtual space within the book, and his explanations of the programming problems are excellent.  They never feel like an information dump or lecture, instead they are seamlessly woven into the story in ways that drive the narrative rather than stall it out while we learn the basics of programming and debugging.

Even more impressive is the way Mr. Duntemann ties together wizardry and programming in a way that allows Stypek to work as a natural born hacker despite having grown up in a world where progress followed the mystic path rather than the physics track.  The two work in parallel, even as they never really cross paths.  Two sentences cannot do this world-building exercise justice - suffice it to say that Duntemann has a firm grasp of how the rules in both universes work, how they tie together, and how to relay these things to the reader in an unobtrusive way.  It's clever, original, and well done.

Ten Gentle Opportunities represents the best that science-fiction and fantasy have to offer.  It blends the two genres in a clever and original way.  It presents near future tech that is plausible, delightful, and a little scare.  Best of all, it provides a exuberant and unapologetic adventure that incorporates action, violence, romance, and robots in ways that are both exciting, fun to read, and even a little bit educational.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The New World of Longshot Reads

A while back a guy by the name of Jeff Duntemann crossed my Twit Box path.  Two tweets in he tossed me a link to a book he had written called Ten Gentle Opportunities.  The plug was so natural that it made me laugh…and it made me three dollar poorer.  At the time it looked like Ten Gentle Opportunities would languish at the bottom of my reading list – my choices are largely constrained by the Puppy of the Month Book Club these days – but even if the book sucked, it was worth tossing him a couple of bucks just to encourage that kind of behavior.

I almost didn’t pull the trigger on the purchase.  Too busy.  No previous contact with the author.  No recommendations from third parties.  After two decades of playing long odds on reading materials and losing, why would I fall back into that old habit?  In this case, Jeff was running in the right circles.  Whoever introduced Jeff to me via Twitter was an author with a name that I trusted.  While Jeff’s taste didn’t align with mine exactly, he was talking in good faith and treated our differences the way they should be treated – as novelties and not deal-breakers.
Besides all that, it was clear that Jeff wasn’t part of the Borg Publishing Alliance.  He was a self-published guy not restricted by the demands of a few New York aesthetes.  His work at least carried the possibility of new ideas and a fresh voice that hadn’t been milked of all personality by the normal meat-grinder of editors trained the same ways in a few schools to conform to the boiler plate voice coming out of the big publishing houses.

What kind of Pulp Revolutionary would I be if I can’t support a guy doing his own marketing for his own writing on his own time?
The bad kind, that’s what.
So I bought the book, and thought that would be the end of it for a good long while.  Well, it now looks like each month will leave me with a gap to fill.  Fellow readers will understand the twitchy feeling that results from not having a bookmark stashed in a current read.  The thought of reading a book sight unseen by an author about whom I knew practically nothing appealed to me more than reading Castalia House’s latest blockbuster - sorry, Loki’s Child, you’ll have to wait until October – and so Ten Gentle Opportunities rocketed to the top of my list.
At a third of the way through this book I can only say thank god for self-publishers and social media.  This is not a review of Ten Gentle Opportunities – I’m only a third of the way through, so it’s too early to say more than that I’m loving it – rather, it is a morality play about of the benefits of the self-publishing model.  It is a call to arms for readers to get out there and take chances on the little guys.  They might not all provide books as entertaining and different as Duntemann’s, but you’ll face better odds than you will with the Big Five Publishers.  Better yet, when you hit that jackpot, you’ll have a new name and a new backlog to start pillaging for even more material.

The social media scene has been a god-send for readers and a fantastic way to push back against the SJW narrative, but at times the Puppy crowd tends to focus on the biggest names and the biggest fights.  That’s all well and good, but when you’re spreading around the Pepe Memes and barking back against the Hugo Crowd, don’t forget to spread the love when it comes to the lesser known lights, because some of them – like Jeff Duntermann – are bright indeed.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The MAGA Mutual Aid Society

Living in a deep blue state carries with it a host of disadvantages that aren’t worth dwelling upon here.  The deep blue denizens of my particular blue state tend to run to the more passive-aggressive end of the spectrum.  Learning that a Trump supporter walks in their midst will cause them to raise their eyebrows and toss off a bit of snark that is easily countered by direct confrontation.  Mind you, my car’s bumper remains sticker free; the sorts who engage in passive-aggressive sarcasm in face to face conversation are also the sorts to vandalize un-attended car whose owner clearly engages in badthink.

I’m also too lazy to visit the local campaign HQ and pick one up, and way too lazy to scrape the dang thing off in December.  Self-awareness alone precludes me from driving around a car that bears a years-out-of-date political bumper sticker.

A baseball hat, on the other hand, that’s a whole different ballgame.  My “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hat never goes anywhere without me, so there’s no need to worry about cowardly backstab-style vandalism.  After the campaign season ends, it can live in the back corner of the closet with the “Detroit Red Wings Stanley Cup Champions” t-shirts.
Wearing the MAGA hat around town, here’s no doubt in my mind that it catches people’s attention.  Not a lot of people, but enough.  People that you pass on the sidewalk can be hard to read, so often it isn’t clear whether the raised eyebrows are an expression of disgust, disbelief, or pleasure.  They barely register, and so likely go un-noticed in most cases.  The people that stop and comment, those are a lot easier to quantify and qualify.

The worst comment I’ve had in three months of wearing the hat has been one guy who said, “Hey man!” and continued walking away showing me a double barreled middle-finger salute.  Far more often has been the thirty-ish beardo asking if I’m wearing the hat ironically.  My response: “Irony is for chumps.”  They never really know how to respond beyond an awkward chuckle and slow, “oookay.”

Far more often, people shout out, “Love the hat!”  Although about half of them feel the need to lean in close and whisper a conspiratorial, “We’re going to win this thing.”  That level of theatrics isn’t necessary, but we live in relatively turbulent times where not everyone is comfortable letting their alt-right freak flag fly.  They'll get no criticism from me on that score - I save my criticism for people on the other side of the political fight.

The best story I have to date happened this past weekend.  I’m a cardio guy who runs long distance races.  For fun.  My thinning hair now forces me to wear a sweat band to keep my eyes salt-free. The bright red MAGA hat is my favorite sweat band*, and it helps my fan support recognize me as I come trundling up the course.  On Sunday, at mile eight of a half-marathon my stride had slowed to a dispirited walk.  The realization that I’d gone out too fast too early, and that trying to keep up with the younger crowd might have been a mistake, had sucked all the wind out of my sails.  After a minute of walking, some random stranger passed me up, but slowed long enough for a fist bump, a “nice hat”, and then gave me a nice little “let’s go” wave.
It was all the encouragement I needed.  I gutted out the next five miles, and while I might not have set any land speed records, or even beat five years younger Jon’s time, without that little moment of mutual aid, it would have been a much longer day on the course without that bright red hat.


* That hat is actually a terrible sweat band.  It’s hot and it doesn’t wick moisture away from the body like my dedicated runner’s hat.  At times the sweat beads up and drips off the brim, and when it dries out you can see the white salt staining on it.  In just a few months it’s faded a shade or two, and picked up a few grease and dirt stains.  The one wag who pointed out how grubby my MAGA hat is had no response to my counter, “Making America Great Again is hard work.”

Monday, September 12, 2016

I See What You Did There, Frank

Chris Cutalik runs the phenomenal D&D blog, Hill Cantons.  A recent post over there featured this Frank Frazetta painting of John Carter putting the hurt on a trio of (what I think are) Black Martians. 

Dude.  Black Martian Lives Matter.
Frank Frazetta is one of my favorite artists, for obvious reasons.  Technically gifted, with a wealth of material painted for genre fiction, he paints what I see in my head when reading.  Whether his style taps into my psyche or I see it this way because that's how he showed it is irrelevant, the man is just a damn fine painter.  The constrast in that painting, with the white building make a silhouette of John Carter, the composition of the work drawing the eye to John and around the space and back into the work, the implied action and ferocity of the battle, Frank is the real deal.

This is a self portrait of the man himself.

Notice anything?

The jaded cynics out there will think, "Duh, of course he used himself as a model, he's always available, it's cheap, and it's convenient." 

Well that's just great.  Do you walk around the malls come Christmas time throwing water on the dreams of children?

All I know is that, if I could paint like that, and if I had to pick a face for John Carter, you bet your sweet ass I'd use my own face.  That's rather the point of the books, isn't it?  To put you in John Carter's harness and boots (and not much else)?  To feel the sands of Mars and embrace of Dejah Thoris?  Why wouldn't an artist do the same thing?

No, I like to think that Frank Frazetta, a man who clearly paid attention to details and whose work is full of deliberate choices, made the deliberate choice to put his own face on John Carter.  That's exactly the sort of decision that dreamers and creative types should be making.  It shows a level of passion and commitment to the form that is far more admirable than, "Meh, this'll save a few bucks," or worse, "This'll prove how sensitive I am to current fashion."

Saturday, September 10, 2016

An Amusing Amazon Recommendation

Amazon's recommendations don't bother me.  They know what I like and have helped me find some interesting reads.  This one showed up in my inbox and amused me enough to share:

Yeah.  Yeah, I think I might like that one.  Thanks, Amazon!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

As Goes the Lovecraft, So Goes the Hugo

Last November, the World Fantasy Award stopped using Lovecraft's name and image for their top prize due to his disturbing tendency to engage in crimethink.

What I want to know is, when will the SFWA follow suit and change the name of their trophy to something more appropriate than just another old white guy?  Hugo Gernsback, the man for whom the award is named, spent his whole life as an old white guy, and never once apologized for it!

More salient, the Hugo award hasn't been about rewarding the Gernbeckian style of fantasy and science fiction in well over a decade.  There must be somebody far more suitable to the SFWA's style of genre fiction that they could name the award after.  Somebody who writes dull prose about identitarian politics or pro-socialist treatises dressed up in spaceships and silver spandex suits.  Somebody who more accurately reflects the Current Year.  Maybe even somebody who isn't so white-ish and man-ish.  I mean, not on purpose, just on principle, you see.

Yes, it's high time the SFWA selected a more diverse person to represent their fine award.  Not Leigh Brackett - she wrote space opera.  Not Andre Norton - she wrote books that appeared in Appendix N.  In fact, you can't really use any woman writing science fiction or fantasy during the 1950s and 1960s.  Their existence doesn't fit the narrative, so naming the award after one of them would go against SFWA's policy of erasing their memory, which plays a key role in proving that The Man always erases women from history.

So we need a diverse author who really nails the current SFWA mindset.  For that, there's really only two choices:
  1. The Marion Award, after Marion Zimmer Bradley.  What could be more suitable than naming the trophy after a child molesting writer whose works are admired for their politics rather than being exemplars of science fiction and fantasy writing?
  2. The Sammy Award, after Samuel R. Delaney.  Again, a known pedophile who spoke favorably about NAMBLA, and whose works of science fiction and fantasy are loved by the SFWA for their graphic depictions of child sex abuse.  He has the advantage of being a person of color, but unfortunately he is isn't quite dead yet.
The only reasonable solution is a compromise.  The SFWA should change the Hugo to the Marion until Delaney dies, and then change it to the Sammy.  That would really show the world where the SFWA's priorities lie.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Puppy of the Month: New Post

This month we are discussing Brian Niemeier's Nethereal over at the Puppy of the Month Book Club.  My initial thoughts on the book went live yesterday.  Here's a taste:
The setting of Nethereal is different.  Very different.  Mention has been made that it blends fantasy and science fiction in a way that harkens back to the days when science fiction and fantasy were considered one and the same.  This is true, but it doesn’t really help nail down where on the spectrum the setting truly lies.  Consider Disney’s animated film Treasure Planet, which was for all practical effects, was simply the novel Treasure Island dressed up in a steam-punk style of science fiction.  Yes, it featured planets and aliens, but the setting and plot were no different from an age of sail adventure.  The setting for Nethereal on the other hand, could not exist without both the science fiction and the fantasy aspects.  The two are intertwined in ways that go well beyond the cosmetic.
There's talk of Warhammer 40K novels, too.  You should totes check it out. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Grown Up Book Report: Killer's Payoff, by Ed McBain

The last twenty years of publishing has really done a number on the second hand book market.  As a kid, you couldn't swing a dead cat in a used bookstore without hitting some high quality writing.  Near as I can tell, the early Heinlein novels and Conan collections and Burroughsian planetary romance novels with the odd 70s psychedelic covers or Frazetta covers, have all been shoved off the shelves by the flood of carbon-copy modern day magic girl and low magic grimdark fantasy novels.  In my moments of optimism I pray those works have all been snatched up and sit in places of honor in the basements of discerning readers.  The corollary would be that the things on the shelves of the used bookstore sit there because no one wants to keep garbage sitting around their house.

Nonetheless, hope springs eternal, and the last trip down into the book mine saw me emerge with a rough jewel in the form of Ed McBain’s Killer’s Payoff.  It was only after reading this novel that I discovered McBain is the man behind the 1954 book and following film, Blackboard Jungle.
Sidenote: As a child of the 1990s, the name McBain will forever conjure up the following:

With a cover that titillating, and a publishing date of 1958, this book fits perfectly into my irregular toe-dipping into pre-1970s writing that aren’t sci-fi and fantasy.  Sci-fi and fantasy has always been my first love, but enough other bloggers are re-discovering genre fiction.  Somebody should really look into the more down to earth blue collar material.  I’m somebody!  So let’s get to it.
Before cracking the cover, let’s recall that today’s view of yesterday’s work is one of the victors looking down upon the vanquished with scorn.  Is this a well-earned reputation, or have we been listening to the same sorts of fools who think modern art is an improvement upon the Realist movement?  This book might not answer the question by itself, but it might just add to my growing collection of data that modern writing has degenerated from, rather than improved upon, the writing of my forefathers.
We’re still not ready to crack the cover, because we need to talk about the cover.  That cover serves as a warning that this book contains graphic and explicit content of a distinctly carnal nature.  This isn’t wholesome fare for the whole family, but mature material suitable only for those with a taste for the seedy.  You might not want to read this on the bus where it will surely draw judgmental raised eyebrows from the matrons and young mothers sitting nearby.  The cover screams that this is a book about sex, and it is, but only to a 1950s extent.
The actual plot of the book is that of two detectives, Cotton Haws and Steve Carella, investigating the murder of a notorious blackmailer.  That blackmailer, Sy Kramer, was soaking three different parties for cash, a high society lady who was paying to hush up a series of photos for a low society magazine, a soda pop magnate, or one of a trio of men who shared a hunting trip with the victim some months back. 
This is just one of a long running series of novels featuring the 87th Precinct of the fictional, but really it’s New York City, burrough of Isola.  And long running this series was; the last of them was published in 2005, just a year before the author’s death.  That’s a pretty good run that speaks well of the man’s writing.  But does it hold up?
The book works as a mystery, with various blind leads, tense interrogations, and two or three quick action sequences.  With the exception of the murder victim, who the investigation slowly reveals deserved a good killing, all of the people in the book are drawn as sympathetic and three-dimensional.  At least until the big reveal at which point the murderer, bent on escaping justice, is revealed to be as venal as his victim.
The actual salacious content of the book is limited to a one extra-marital affair, a pre-marital hookup, and two or three references to titillating photos that would be considered tame by today’s standards.  On that score, the cover fails to deliver.  These days I’m the one judging at the matrons and young mothers on the bus unabashedly reading lit-porn.  My cover might suggest a lot more, but all this book does is suggest – we Chuck Tingle fans all know how graphic those ‘romance’ novels get.   
My how the times have changed.
Speaking of changing times, as a window to homicide investigations in the 1950s, Killer’s Payoff  is a fascinating look at how information was gathered before the dawn of the information age.  Without recourse to Google or databases of any kind, it’s fascinating to see the increased import of questioning suspects and witnesses and even those who merely knew the suspect takes.  The attention to detail required by the police in this novel, and the clever ways they deduce events that transpired months previous, clues that sometimes literally hang by a thread, answers questions that we towering intellects of The Current Year wouldn’t even think to ask.
The writing is tight, the pace deliberate, the characters believable, and the setting itself well realized.  The police procedural is not my first choice for fiction, but this book held my interest despite that.  Killer’s Payoff may not be award-worthy or likely to spark a new renaissance of literature if only more people would give it a chance.  I wouldn’t recommend rushing straight out to Amazon and buying a copy of this “must read lost gem”.  On the other hand, McBain is a solid writer, and it’s easy to see why he was so popular in his own time.
In conclusion, Killer’s Payoff absolutely serves as another example of high quality work produced for the masses in the 1950s that far too many people today write off as old and boring.  It’s as good as any of the police procedurals I’ve read that were written in the last ten years, at least.  As a light piece of mystery and escapism, it works well.  Better yet, it reminds me that sometimes a little regression can be a good thing.

Post-script:  For sci-fi fans, McBain wrote the cover story of the August 1952 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly, under the pseudonym S. A. Lombino.  My conclusion that McBain is still worth a read can be applied to sci-fi as well as crime fiction.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Modern Sci-Fi, Why Do I Even Bother?

Overdrive is the poor man’s Audible.  It’s a cell phone program that allows you to check out books from your local public library.  You can even listen to audio books which you can download from Project Gutenberg’s Audio Books section or through the local library branch.   

The books available on Project Gutenberg are all public domain works, which include a wealth of riches for those of us spelunking in the mines of the Burroughsian, Howardian, and E.E. Doc Smithian pulps.  The quality of the human read audio recordings ranges from great to fine.  (The robot read stories aren't worth your time.)  The list of available works is short, but well worth a look for any fan of audiobooks. 
The local library branch on the other hand…

My local branch has 350 audiobooks available in the sci-fi category, most of which consist of teen books in the vein of the Hunger Games or worse, Hugo Award winner aspirants – and I mean that in the most pejorative sense possible.  Just about anything not written for angsty teens is written for fans of either gimmicky pseudo-intellectual posturing or Oprah-style relationship drama dressed up in a silver spandex suit and parading around the bridge of a planet busting spacecraft. 
There are bright spots.  A smattering of Burroughs’ titles are on the list, but these are generally books that sit, well worn, on my shelf.  My most recent listen, Out of Time’s Abyss is a fun little romp if not quite up to Burroughs’ finest.  Aside from the few diamonds in the rough, for the most part it’s the same dreary literary chaff one finds on the shelves of the big box book stores.

What can man do in the face of such tedium?
How about taking a deep breath, opening up your mind, and giving some recent work a shot?  A collection of short stories called The New Space Opera presents an excellent opportunity to dip one’s toe into the relatively current state of fantasy and sci-fi.  After all, if you never experience what the current market has to offer, how can you complain about it?  And so it was with some trepidation that I gave some modern sci-fi a listen.

Some of us just never learn.
The book opens with an introduction by the editor, Gardner Dozois, which discusses the origins and evolution of ‘space opera’.  It starts out great, name checking some undeservedly obscure authors like A.E. Van Vogt, E. E. Doc Smith, and Jack Vance, and even admits that science fiction as a whole abandoned its rollicking good fun and aspirational value in the 1960s in favor of chasing the approval of social engineers and ivory tower literary critics.  Unfortunately, he presents this change as a good thing, and barrels straight on into the standard self-congratulatory praise of modern sci-fi as a clear cut improvement over its predecessors.  He even goes so far as to mention that disgusting pervert Samuel R. Delaney in a positive light.  That’s a deal breaker right there, but with traffic snarled and the essay over, we can get to the stories themselves.

Photoshopped for more accurate portrayal.
Before we do, let’s dispense with the need for a concrete definition of ‘space opera’ that clearly demarcates it from other genres.  We all know what it requires, big dang spaceships, multiple planets, adventure, romance, and colorful characters, and it should all operate on a grand scale.  This is opera, but in space.  It’s right there in the name.  It should be a little bombastic, a little over the top, and evoke big feelings in the reader.  These are general rules, of course, and there’s room on the margins to quibble.  The point here is that my disappointment from the stories in this collection stems from their quality as stories, and how space operatic they feel, rather than whether or not they meet specific criteria for ‘space opera’.
First in the docket, Saving Tiamaat, by Gwyneth Jones, is one long lament by an assassin working as an odd combination diplomat and security officer for a space UN.  It’s written in the heavy gimmicky style favored by the right people these days.  I couldn’t finish this story because it was far more concerned with the main protagonist’s gloominess and clever prose that only ever hints at what the hell is going on than it was with establishing any sort of conflict or stakes or reason for the reader to care about any of this. The full story is available online for free, right here, if you want to verify for yourself.  Strike one.

Second up, Verthandi is Rising, by Ian McDonald, also left me bored.  It starts out with an intergalactic war fought over millennia by soldiers grappling with time dilation, but the meat of the conflict is just set dressing for the real tale.  That story features two members of a three person crew searching for the third member of their triad.  That third member went awol in order to allow the galactic empire’s defeated enemy to flee through a wormhole to a parallel universe, in order to spare them from genocide. 

Let me borrow a quote from Travel by Thought, “At first blush, the tone and style of “Verthandi’s Ring” take some getting used to, primarily because McDonald aims for the atmosphere and cadence of poetry.”   He definitely succeeds in an atmosphere of cadence and poetry.  His prose is definitely lyrical.  Shame it takes such an effort to penetrate his prose to determine what the heck is going on in the story.  Again, from Travel by Thought, “Verthandi’s Ring is one of those stories that needs a second reading. That is when the pieces fall more securely into place, the narrative becomes clearer, and its artistry unfolds like a flower opening up to the morning sunlight.” He says that as though impenetrable prose is a good thing.  It’s not.  I did understand it the first time, but the effort to do so killed the fun of it.  The whole story left my with an irritated feeling of, why didn’t you just say so?
Again, this is a writer more enamored of literary tricks and poetic license than he is with presenting a story.  The MFA students and professors might lap this up while on the clock, but there’s nothing appealing about it for casual readers looking for an enjoyable slice of entertainment.  Strike two.

Finally, Hatch, by Robert Reed, in which the author plays games with flashbacks and dribbles out information so slowly reading the story is like eating an onion, you slowly peel back the layers and consume them one at a time, always hoping this is the last one and knowing that in the end all you’ll be left with is a bad taste in your mouth.  The backdrop to this boring tale is a planet-sized generation ship whose engines were knocked out of commission during a long war against a sentient space-blob.
Let me say that again.  This is a story about a planet-sized generation ship.  It’s engines were knocked out. During a war.  With a sentient space-blob.  Robert Reed made that boring. 

Now that is quite the literary accomplishment.
Let me give you one example of how Robert Reed stuffs great ideas into the background in order to focus on tedious relationship drama.  The main protagonist and best friend meet in a vaguely described location.  It sounds pretty epic, some form of massive cliff overhanging a cloud of space-blob remnants that contain the rare earth metals and ooze-encrusted machinery that allows the small refugee settlement that survived the Space-Blob War to survive, or on the cusp of a city-sized dead thruster?  It’s not entirely clear, but it sounds like it might be awesome.  Reed glosses over it to get to the important thing – the friendship of a young man and his mentor.  That mentor, we learn after reading two full conversations with him, is actually an ancient trilobite-like alien.  Reed doesn’t just bury that lede, he forces it to drive itself out into the desert, dig its own grave, and then shoot itself in the head.   And that’s just one example out of many.  Strike three.

With that third strike, The New Space Opera lost its place on my hard drive.  All three stories are clearly written for critics, and not for readers.  Ironic, given that this reader has nothing to offer but criticism.  The top priority for these three stories is signaling to other writers that they possess a supreme command of the English language – that they have mastered the use of tone, metaphor, mood, and prose.  Unfortunately for the reader (or listener as the case may be), all three put the story and the reader’s enjoyment near the bottom of the list.
Bear in mind, this is not to say that these stories am too smart for me simple brain.  Quite the contrary, these stories are far too clever for their own good.  They fall all over themselves engaging in high-brow literary signaling that they forget the point of the exercise – to tell an evocative story.  They are like the guy who successfully signals his wealth by buying a high maintenance and flashy sports car that he can’t drive in the rain.  Yeah, everyone knows he’s rich, but he can’t go anywhere – he forgot that the whole point of a car is to get you from one place to another, in much the same way that the authors of these stories forgot that the point of a story is to tell a story.

You know who could tell a hell of a story?  H. Beam Piper.  That man could tell a story.  Think I’ll go download a few short stories of his.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Thoughts on the Pulp Revolution

As mentioned previously, the publishing world is undergoing a revolution, and the pulp revolution is just one outgrowth of the changes roiling the market.  I use the term 'pulp revolution' mainly because smarter men than I use it, but also because it encapsulates the salient points of the changes taking place:
  1. The recent uptick in rock 'em, sock 'em short stories featuring science fiction and fantasy in the Gernsbeckian* and Campbellian tradition harkens back to the writing showcased in the pulp magazines.
  2. This uptick is largely the result of a ragtag bunch of outcasts taking on the powerful and well-financed titans of industry.
One minor reservation I have about the term "pulp revolution" is the implication that the new guys seek to simply turn the clock back to 1950.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The deference shown to the masters of old is simply that of students seeking to learn from the master, and then go off in their own directions.  These aren't writers who want to ignore advances made in the intervening dark age of sf/f literature, but writers who think the advances were made in the wrong direction.

Think of it this way...

Forgive the crudity of the's not to scale.
It isn't about turning the clock back to pre-1980 writing, but creating a new timeline.  One where fun and adventure weren't stripped out and replaced by dour intellectual masturbation.  One where the heroes and heroines fought to make a better world with their own two hands, rather than fought to create a utopia through ham-fisted appeals to socialism and identity politics.

The pulp revolution - whatever you want to call it - is not so much about recreating the old stuff as it is creating new stuff that honors the old in ways that the dinosaur publishing houses don't.