Monday, October 31, 2016

More on Manly Wade Wellman

Apparently I spoke too soon on the whole, "Who Fears the Devil" thing.  Having finished the book, it's far more than just a string of creepy Appalachian monster tales. 

For one thing, the book builds as it rolls along.  Every few tales John Silverstrings gets a little more detail added to his description.  When he confronts later supernatural creatures, he uses knowledge learned from earlier confrontations.  John as a character gets a little deeper and a little deeper with each story.

Note the word 'confronts' in the previous paragraph.  This isn't a monster hunter book.  Sometimes John fights monsters - he literally punches them in the jaw.  Sometimes he watches while the monsters deliver some much needed justice to a well deserving scoundrel.  And sometimes John even redeems the monsters.  In at least one case he fixes the monster by fixing the monster up with a wife.  You wouldn't see that in today's pink-slime sf/f.

I use the term 'monsters' loosely.  Some of these supernatural creatures are true monsters, some are lost wayfarers reminiscent of Lovecraft's Elder Things, and some are humans corrupted by power.  The classic evil witches and sorcerers in this book are all different from each other and feature some fairly Lovecraft-esque degeneracy, but they are all monstrous in their own way.

The best part of this book, though?  It's a very uplifting book.

Numerous passages proclaim that the night cannot stand against the day, and even though it is never quoted, the reader is frequently reminded of the passage in the Bible that the gates of hell cannot prevail.  Going into the book, I had thought John's silver string guitar would be the magic +5 weapon that solves everything, but more often than not it was a non-entity.  Sure, the silver helps.  Sure, the songs of hope and light can drive back the darkness.  But most often, it was John's simple goodness that guided him down the right path and allowed him to withstand the hurricanes of evil power.

During this haunting season, its nice to be reminded that the monsters have their own fears.  Even the devil himself flees before the light.  It's great sustenance for the soul in a time when Hollywood is falling all over itself to tell the world that all is darkness and life in meaningless and sometimes monsters kill regular people for no reason and there's nothing - nothing! - you can do but accept the cold harsh truth of existence and the futility of trying to do right by others.  It's hard to imagine a book like this being made by the bleak people of Hollywood.  It's just too darn hopeful.

Even in cases where Hollywood allows for some victory, it must always be transitory.  Witness the long dénouement of the current monster movie golden child - Stranger Things.  Yes, the monster is defeated, but only at great cost.  And!  It planted worm babies in Will's stomach with it's throat-dong, so it's got that going for it.  Seriously, did nobody else notice that this program showed an alien raping a ten year old boy's face and impregnating the kid in the process?  Fun for the whole family!

Getting back to Manly Wade Wellman...

And the romance!  There's actually a lot of romance in this book.  A touch of it with John in fine episodic television style, but mainly the romance is between the people John encounters and aids.  It's all very chaste and very suggested.  Not suggestive, just suggested.  It isn't overtly in your face, but tasteful and pleasant and...well, romantic.  It stands in stark comparison to what passes for romance in the few Magic Girl books I've read.

Really, it's hard to know where to end this post.  There's so much right with this book that I wish I could remember who recommended it.  I'd really like to thank them for several hours of fun reading, and a bunch of supernatural tales that didn't leave me wanting to take a shower to rid myself of the clinging stink of evil.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Pulp Archivist

I shouldn't be telling you this.  It feels a bit like a magician giving away his secrets.  Most of what I write here is a response to or inspired by other bloggers.  If you start reading those bloggers, you might have less use for me.  If that's so, so be it.  Far better for you to get the words straight from the horse's mouth* than to get it through my own off-centered filter.

Fellow traveler and fellow contributor to the Puppy of the Month Book Club, Nathan Housley, has his own blog up and running now.  It's called, The Pulp Archivist, and it's well worth a follow.  I particularly appreciated his pointing to Dean Wesley Smith's analysis of pulp writing speed

Nathan's thoughts helped put the Lester Dent Formula into context for me:
He describes various levels, up to Pulp Speed Six, or 2,000,000 original words per year.  That's more words in one year than G. R. R. Martin has published for the entire Song of Ice and Fire series over the course of twenty years.  Those levels of production explain the pulps' reliance on structures and formulas, as organization assists in creation.  When you're relying on one cent a word to pay the bills, streamlining the creative process is a must.
He also delves into the classic pulp works, both written and spoken.  If you love the pulps, and if you appreciate his detailed write-ups at the Puppy of the Month as much as I do, you should be reading his blog on the regular. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Who Fears the Devil

Caught up in too much work, too much writing, too much pulp revolutioning, too much wargaming, and too much fathering, what's a man to do?

Combine them as much as possible.  I wargame with my teen son and tween daughter.  (If you stretch the definition a bit, I even wargame with my three year old.)  I read Cirsova to my four year old, and now thanks to a G+ recommendation, I read Manly Wade Wellman to my four year old, too.  It's October, so it's time for a little creepy story telling. Also, these tales are a part of our cultural heritage - at least while we still have our own culture, anyway - and after reading the Hobbit several times over to each of the older kids, it's time to expand our horizons beyond the Tolkien.

Silver John is a wandering troubadour of the Appalachian country, and Manly Wade brings you the stories of his encounters with the monsters of Americana.  Most of these stories were published in the old pulp magazine Planet Stories, and so they may be available for free somewhere on the internet, but it was worth the three dollar price point to save the hassle of finding them, collecting them, and wrestling them onto my ancient cell phone.  (Late 2014 is Babylonian-style ancient in cell phone years.  I'm using a museum piece.)

These are some fun little stories.  The monsters of each story are not like the standard humanoid theme and variation that you see in most modern fantasy, nor are they simple European Grimm's tales moved over to the New World.  Of course, you do see Appalachian style witches, but for the most part these are unique critters vaguely described and organically grown out of the rocky Appalachian soil.  Wellman has a gift for character descriptions that provide detailed characterizations and set the stage for the story to follow, and the downhome style of speech used by the first person narrator is note perfect for the stories he tells.

If you love short fiction, and are in the mood for some atmospheric and moody Creepshow style monster tales, this is well worth a shot.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Chasing Rainbow Colored Unicorns

Visual representation of the perfect media
that won't be attacked by anyone
If you write it, they will come.
If they weren't so vile, you might be able to actually feel some pity for the six major media companies.  It's easy to bang on major media production companies like Marvel, ESPN, DC, and the Big Five NY Publishing Houses.  The quality of their product has plummeted drastically over the years as their commitment to avoiding criticism has led them down one blind alley after another.  It's fun to gloat over the falling viewership (and concomitant ad revenues) of an NFL bending their knee to movements like Black Lives Matter.  Watching the share of readership that the Big Five Publishers possess shrink year after year warms the cockles of one's heart.  Seeing the failure of a blatant attempt to please the Right People like GhostbusTa-Tas is enough to make one cackle like Montgomery J. Burns after releasing the hounds.
But let's not forget that these are all smaller members of the Big Six: Comcast, Disney, Time Warner, CBS, Viacom, and 21st Century Fox.  These little failures represent a larger trend, and have at their root the same basic cause:  Companies seeking to maximize profits by maximizing appeal, and who think that maximizing appeal means catering to the whims of a very few people sheltered deep within the confines of gated coastal communities.  Their current whim is the pursuit of perfection by including just the right mix of people that ensure that they won't get criticized for leaving anyone out.
These media companies are chasing rainbows*.  Actually, its more like chasing unicorns.  Unicorns are perfect creatures that don't exist and which can't ever be caught.  The perfect demographic balance, and the perfect socio-political message that will keep you safe from criticism is also a mythical beast that remains forever out of reach.  Forget the fact that our society has mutated into a strange thing where taking offense is now considered a heroic act worthy of attention and financial remuneration.  Even ignoring that bizarre aspect of modern life, you simply can't please everyone.
So why bother?

If you like something, if you're passionate enough about a story or comic or video to spend the time crafting it, then somewhere out there is another soul that feels at least passionate enough about that thing you made to read or watch it.  And he has friends he'll tell about it.  And some of them will do the same.  Keep plugging away at what you like, and the audience will follow. 

It may not be a big audience.  It won't be an audience consisting of every man, woman, child, citizen, and illegal immigrant in the country, but it'll be big enough to keep you motivated.  And maybe, if you're really good at what you do, you can even make an audience for that odd little thing you created.

George Lucas did it.  Bill gates did it.  Even Gygax** did it.  You can probably do it, too.

You see, the big dogs have a lot of people to please.  They have to worry about the shareholders and the board members and the vice-presidents and the producers and the major media critics and if any of them get skittish, the whole project collapses.  The only way to please them all is to produce the sort of bland media that bores people to death.

You think the Sharknado guys worry about criticism?  Heck no - they think a tornado full of sharks is awesome, so they make a tornado full of sharks.  For years those guys labored on low-budget sci-fi trash that was most frequently rented out on accident.  But they kept on making movies that everyone likes and now the entire country knows who they are.  Sure, they may know them as 'those Sharknado guys', but I can think of a lot of worse things to have carved on your tombstone.

So stop worrying about the dullards and the average man, and just write what you love.  You'll die a lot happier broke and laughing about the fun you had burying author names in your stories than will a wealthy man who wrote boring tales meant to appeal to people you despise.

Besides, once you build your audience, you can always sell out to the big boys later at a much higher price than if you sell your soul to them when you're a complete unknown.

That's my plan, anyway.  Sell out for big bucks then slowly produce shoddy material once I'm rolling in the big dough.  I'd name that plan after myself, but Scalzi beat me to it.

* See what I did there?

** I love that all you need to hear is his last name and you know exactly who I'm talking about almost as much as I love footnotes.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Rattenkrieg: Assault on the Tractor Factory

Through his excellent wargame podcast, Wargames To Go, Mark Johnson introduced me to the concept of postcard wargames.  These are mini-microgames that make One Page Bulge look like Fortress Europa, but don't let that fool you.  They might not fill a table or a weekend, but the right mix of mechanics can make for a challenging and pleasant session of pushing cardboard chits around a mapboard.

Turning Point Simulations has a collection of free postcard games listed on their website.  They include one, complete with die-cut counters, with every purchase you make from their website.  I played the first one, the solo game Rattenkrieg, and after a quick read through of the rules, me and my youngest were ready to start slaughtering some Nazis and Commies.

As you can see, the game uses just ten counters for each of the two armies, and takes place on a map with just ten spaces.  Despite these limitations, it includes rules for all of the following: air strikes, ambushes, hidden placement, snipers, generals, leadership, home field advantage, and supply considerations.  Not a bad list of variables to juggle.
So how does it play?  Fast and fun.  It's not a terribly deep game, but what it lacks in depth it more than makes up for in sophistication.  There are little subtleties to this game that took me two or three play-throughs to suss out.  As the German leader, you've got to cover as much ground as possible, while converging on those pesky Russian forces that keep popping up all around you.
Your units start off strong, but every combat depleted their strength, and you've only got four air strikes available.  The Soviets, controlled by the game mechanics, have six units on the board to start the game, only five of which have known locations.  Each turn one more pops up in a random location.  If you are sitting there already, it won't arrive.  This means that you have to balance overwhelming firepower placed in enemy controlled spaces with covering empty spaces to keep them quashed.
The game relies a fair amount of luck, and the first three games were handily won by the Germans.  A very suspicious outcome.  A closer read of the rules, and I noted that the Soviets start with five units on the board - duh.  That makes a first turn win impossible, and even a second or third turn win unlikely.
The first play through with the proper set up still went to the Germans:

This was a fast win, but it was still a close-run thing.  It required a lot of luck, and in subsequent plays where the dice didn't so heavily favor the Germans, they were slowly ground down by the surviving Soviets.  As such, this seems like a historically accurate representation given that the Germans have to win fast or they won't win at all.

So far, I've gotten 90 minutes of table time out of a free game that fits on a postcard.  Even if I never play this game again, it was already time well spent.  Especially given that it served as a chance to show my three year old how these games work.  (She likes the green ones.)  Try pulling off that trick with a round of Advanced Squad Leader.

Edit to add:  The Australian Wargamer has a second review that I found just after writing up my own experience.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Most Writing Advice Sucks

The original purpose of this blog was to catalog a journey from the cubical farm to the easy life of a career writer.  It seemed like a legitimate purpose for a blog, a way to take constant stock of my writing progress, and maybe give a little something back to the writing community.  Over time, I've slowly come to a couple of important conclusions.

The easy one is a variation on the theme of, "Don't take financial tips from a broke guy."  As a guy just out of the starting blocks, there's not a whole lot I can tell writers that they can't find from far more credible sources elsewhere.  So there isn't much writing advice here.  It's mainly thoughts and commentary directed towards media, with a focus on pimping the high quality independent works that don't get the attention they deserve. 

Some day I hope to be a Pulp Revolution hipster that was there before it was cool.

The major conclusion I've reached about the culture of writers is that most writing communities are terrible places.  They are filled with pretentious people who aren't half as clever as they think.  They were probably in the top two percent of the smartest kids in their small town class, and never graduated from Dunning-Kruger University.  That doesn't stop them from presenting long lists of copied and recopied "No Shit Sherlock" advice about reading what you like, finding a quiet place to write, and just writing already. 

The inspirational advice that grinds my gears the most is the accurate but over-used idea that you should only write if you can't not write.  For a couple of reasons:
  1. When somebody comes to you asking for help with something, telling them not to do that thing if they don't have to smacks of self-serving condescension.  If you don't want the competition, don't offer advice to help the competition.
  2. It doesn't offer any real guidance or path forward.
  3. It isn't consistent with the advice that normally accompanies the phrase.
Specifically, regarding the last point, when that phrase is used in the opening of an article that lays  out the ground work for a detailed, step-by-step process by which you, yes you, can earn enough from your writing to earn a living.  It happens all the time, and frankly, if you can't come up with a more creative way of writing your advice than the hundred and first iteration of, "Don't, but if you must, try this," then maybe creativity isn't your strong suit, and just maybe creative writing isn't the field for you.

Look, I get it.  It's nice to be paid for your writing.  The knowledge that a stranger would sacrifice a bit of his time or cash to partake of the sweet honey of your writing is both financially and emotionally rewarding.  But if you really believe that you write because you can't not write, then why are you stressing out about how to write full time?

I got a list of hobbies as long as my arm that earning a living from would be a dream come true.  Of course, the market for people who sing bass in a barbershop quartet is limited, so that's right out the window.  As it is DMing old school D&D, or pushing cardboard chits around a hex map, or running a lot of ten minute miles in a row without stopping, or playing video games ten years past their prime.  These are all things, just like writing, that I can't not do, so I just do them anyway.  I do them for the sheer pleasure they bring.  Just like writing.

You can't claim to be a writer who writes because he can't not write, and claim that you don't write because you can't make enough money at it.  That makes no sense.  If you want to be a writer, go  write already.

Let me conclude with some writing advice written by an underappreciated master, by way of Two Gun Bob at Two Gun Blog:

Go forth and multiply those words.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Shallows: A Female Protagonist Done Right

The Seagull does not talk about movies very often.  For the most part, he only looks at Hollywood through the rearview mirror. 

They clearly don't like me.  They've made that fact abundantly clear over the last few years.  They might want my money or attention, but until they stop berating me and mocking me, they'll get as little from me as I can manage.

For various familial reasons, my daughter wanted to see the shark attack suspense movie The Shallows, and sometimes family movie night takes the wheel and kicks principled objections into the back seat.

It's a great suspense movie.  The threat builds, the reveals steady, and the resolution fast, violent, and brutal.  The most impressive part of the film is the successful use of a genuinely feminine protagonist who survives by dint of cleverness and determination.  The decision to cast the survivor as a female might have been driven by the more appealing cheesecake factor, but it adds to the suspense given her relative weakness.  That vulnerability heightens the suspense, and makes the viewer care even more about her fate. 

It might be accidental.  It might be patriarchal.  It might be a lot of things, but one thing it might not be, is bad film-making.  Worth note is that the violence is particularly well done.  Most of it happens off camera or is obscured by waves or rocks, and leaving the gore to the viewer's imagination is a refreshingly effective throwback to earlier film-making techniques, while leaving the movie accessible to more mature pre-teens.

There are a few idiot moments early on the story, but the producers made a few token gestures to explain the motivation behind them.  The viewer, having seen the trailer and understanding common safety rules, knows these are mistakes, but can at least understand why the girl in the water puts her desire to get into the water ahead of basic water safety.  Besides, the few mistakes she makes are critical to putting her in the dangerous situation that she spends the next eighty minutes struggling to escape.

And boy does she struggle.  Every time she solves one problem another one rears its ugly head.  The universe clearly has it in for her, and she frequently pauses to acknowledge these little moments with a slight, "You gotta be kidding me," look.  It's endearing and makes her a far more sympathetic heroine than another cut and paste badass dude with boobs and a womb.

All in all, this is a tight little movie with great pacing, and just the kind of believable and sympathetic female protagonist that Paul Fieg, JJ Abrams, and Joss Whedon only wish they knew how to create.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Hopping on Brown Beauty

Joe needs a little push to sit down and get cranking, so this Pulp Revolutionary is pointing to the church tower and shouting, "One if by blog, two if by Gab!" 

I don't know whether this kernel might grow into a book that qualifies as part of the pulp revolution or not, but Joseph Moore doesn't realize that he is really on to something here.  He's asking for feedback on a outstanding writing sample.  Go check it out, I'm confident you'll want to pepper him with encouragement to continue this narrative.

This is what encouragement looks like, revolutionaries.  Don't be afraid to show people the cool stuff and the potential that's out there considering an end-run around the grasping claws and fatass offensive linemen of the Big Five publishing houses.  They encourage doubleplusgoodthink through cold hard cash. Without the globalist bankroll encouragement like this is the only power we have to nudge people to engage in crimethink (like that contained in the story above).  Let's show him we've got his back.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Scanning the New Pulp Horizon

For those of you who don't read footnotes, Rawle Nyanzi, a young man writing his own survey of Appendix N literature, is writing a book of his own.  As mentioned previously, I'm looking forward to seeing how a millennial approaches pulp writing.  He is a self-professed follower of the "new pulp revival", so I'm optimistic that he is familiar with the fundamental premises of pulp writing, and will present us with an interesting new take on the pulp genre. 

(Even if he does use the tepid term "revival" instead of the more accurate "counter-reformation" or my preferred belligerent sounding "revolution".  Give me a second to climb down off my hobby-horse here, and I'll continue...)

It's not clear to me how somebody born after the great purge of the 1980s will view old style fiction, nor even how his exposure to media from the last two decades will influence his own work, but it's something to look forward to.  As Brian Niemeier showed us in his Soul Cycle series, pulp-style fiction can work even within a framework that draws heavily on influences as modern as anime.

(Not a big fan of anime, so my analysis would be infantile in its depth.  Somebody with a better understanding of anime could produce a lot of hay by measuring classic anime series against the yardstick of the Five Pillars of Pulp.)

Today I'd like to use Rawle as a jumping off point for another observation about the Pulp Revolution: it inspires people to pick up the pen and get writing.  Aside from myself and Misha and Rawle, there are at least another three authors that drift through the haze of my social media awareness who have all started writing, or resumed writing as is the case with Misha, in the past year.  To say nothing of guys like Cirsova.  And in each case it is due in no small part to a desire to join the Pulp Revolution/Revival/whatever you want to call it.

Setting aside the usual disclaimers about observation bias and positive feedback systems, it's worth noting that something is going on here.  For some reason, the talk of new pulps, and the desire for more of them, is happening at a time when more people have the time, the wherewithal, and the inspiration to just shut up and do it themselves already.  It might be the influence of the Puppies both Sad and Rabid.  It might be Chuck Tingle inspiring us to kiss the sky.  It might just be that the trickle of new material* demonstrating proof of concept was enough to break a dam of long pent-up desire among the would-be pulp revolutionaries.

Whatever the reason, brace yourself for incoming, because 2017 is going to be an exciting year for long under-served fans of science fiction and fantasy.

* For my part, it was the first issue of Cirsova that really inspired me to sit down and start slapping the keyboard in earnest.  I've read the best and worst of the original pulps and the latter attempts to ape them, but it wasn't until I read great stories in Cirsova that I realized that it could be done, that a market existed, and that I might be able to sell a bit of it myself.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Three Body Problem

Luke Daniels read Three Body Problem to me during my daily commute, and he is an excellent narrator.  I'd have taken physical notes on his performance if I wasn't busy driving, texting, and eating, all at the same time.  (I kid.)  As it was, I did take a lot of mental notes on ways to improve my own performances.

The title itself is one of the few Puppy-related works available for download from my local public library - I use Overdrive to pick and save titles - so it's only natural that it wound up in my queue.

This is a very strange book.  It's one of those books that nobody ever talks about, they just tell you it's great and that you should read it.  You won't understand why until you read it yourself, and then you'll be one of us.

There are a few things that I can say about it that won't ruin anything.  It starts with a young girl watching her father murdered by the Red Guards during Mao's Great Leap Forward.  My son listened to the first two chapters with me, and I was grateful for a chance to show him how socialism and communism really operate.  It took longer to get through the first few chapters because we paused the audio to review how China got to the point that mobs of college students could violently assault their college professors with no repercussions.  He got half-way through the observation that such a thing could never happen here before he remembered such things already happen here. 

That may have been the most chilling part of the book for him.  Even more so than the slow burn reveal of the main antagonist of the book.  He also was surprised that a science-fiction novel would spend so much time talking about the past, and it was only later - much later - that it became clear how the opening third of the book drives the action for the remainder of the book.

Cixin Liu has a gift for making likable characters that are irredeemably evil and good characters who are hard to like.  Sorting out which is which is half the mystery of the book.  A few of the mysteries are easy to solve right out of the gate, but even those are fun to watch unfold.

The last two chapters get really weird.  Like, end of 2001: A Space Odyssey: The Motion Picture weird.  The shift is gradual enough that you don't notice until things have already gone completely trippy, and soon enough the narrative circles back around to explain the import of the weirdness.

The book, the narrative, and the characters, are all so complicated, it's hard to know who to root for through most of it.  That kills a lot of the emotional punch that the book otherwise have had, and it's only Cixin's gift for characters and mystery that kept me plugging through to the cliff-hanger ending.

Although not the best book published in 2015, it certainly stands head and shoulders above some other Hugo Award winning novels I've read over the years.  It's well worth a read (or a listen), and the less you know about it going in, the better your experience will be.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Wargame Wednesday: Crisis 2000

My latest guest post over at the Castalia House blog was published today (clicky for linky).  It's not often you see a fourth-generation wargame, and this one was published long before I had ever heard of the concept of 4th generation war.  Well worth finding and playing a few games of Crisis:2000.

As of this moment, Amazon has a copy of the magazine that contained this game in stock. 

It turns out (hat tip to Karl Gallagher, author of the highly recommended novel Torchship, for this information) that an updated version is available.  Crisis: 2020, was released in 2007 and from the pictures shown on Board Game Geek, looks a lot prettier than my old copy.  At this point, it's not clear to me if this was anything other than a cosmetic upgrade.  More on this story as it develops.

Of course, we're talking about updates to story about a nine year old update to a twenty-two year old game, don't expect much.


The major publishing houses mass produce literature that starves the soul.  It provides no nutritional value - it just shoves ideas into you with no real concern for your well being.  When you're done, you feel like maybe you read something important, something that might have made you a better person.  Instead, all you did was consume a facsimile of real literature.  It pretends to be satisfying and filling and to have been developed by the finest minds in the industry, but what you consume barely meets the general criteria for literature.  It's all word games and parlor tricks, methods and exercised designed to elicit a mood or opinion backed by no healthy philosophy.

Daddy Warpig called it misery-porn, and that's a tight a summary as any I've seen.  It blindly accepts the lies of moral relativism and the belief that science negates religion, often at the same time.  It ignores real, fundamental truths about men and women and man's place in the universe in favor of a stunted view of mankind as both insignificant and the center of all things, again at the same time.  It ignores the reality of mankind as fallen from God's grace and his struggles to even understand his place in the universe.  It favors sex over romance and violence in service of their lies.  It's many things, clever, erudite, and even technically savvy, but it isn't very good for you.

Not even once, kids.
On the other hand, you've got a bunch of little independent producers - mom and pop shops - making fine fare that's fit for the whole family.  It's robust fare, a little daring, and it gives you something meaty, something that really sticks to your ribs.  Some of it might not be to your taste, and some of it might not taste all that great, but unlike restaurants, the small publishers and self-published writers charge less.  And you can stop after a chapter without wasting any more time on them.

Why would anyone eat mass produced garbage that costs more instead of taking a chance on cheaper fare that's probably a lot more filling and healthy?  Marketing is the only answer that comes to mind, and its the only explanation for the continued existence of the brain poison peddlers of the Big 5 Publishing houses.

This isn't a very nice blog post.  It's really not fair to McDonalds to compare them to trash mongers like the Big 5 publishing houses.  McDonald's produces low cost fare that makes for a fine sometimes food.  Maybe it's better to compare Big Publishing to Big Tobacco.  They both sell products that kill you - one your soul, the other your body.  They both rely on savvy marketing to convince that they are the coolest kids in the room.  They both suffer when consumers notice what they are really selling in their packages.

Yeah...Big Publishing is much more like Big Tobacco - stay away from it kids!  It might seem cool, but it's not healthy, and over time it makes you smell funny.

Hugo Delenda Est

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Cargo Cult of New Pulp Media

Those of us laboring in the trenches to drag science fiction and/or fantasy (sf/f) literature onto a new track spent decades lost in a desert wasteland with only the occasional Cryptonomicon or Eifelheim oasis to slake our thirst.  And even those novels, great as they are, can't hope to satisfy the urge for adventurous fun that the pulps and their immediate descendants still provide.

Many of us experimented with small house publishers producing contemporary attempts at modern pulp sources only to find their writing fell into the same traps and pitfalls as those that had ensnared the big publishing houses.  Sure, they wrote stories that tried to emulate the pulps, with 1920s slang and fast action and a little weirdness thrown in for its own sake.  But these did little to slake a thirst for the sort of pulp feeling that Misha Burnett so ably describes on his blog. 

The elevator pitch for Mischa's post is that the five pillars of pulp writing are Action, Impact, Moral Peril, Romance, and Mystery.  Being the clever fellow that he is, Mischa includes a caveat that the list is neither authoritative nor definitive.  My summary of that position is that pulp is like porn, it's hard to define, but I know it when I see it.  It's a fairly broad spectrum of media that meets a few important criteria, no single one of which is mandatory.  A pulp mystery might lack action, but still feel pulpy.  The tale of one man struggling to escape the pull of the sun's gravity has little room for romance, but can still contain action, impact, mystery, and moral peril - suicide is an immoral act, after all.

Most of the more modern attempts at pulp writing emphasize the pillars of Action, Impact, and Mystery, with a dash or Romance, but include only the barest hint of Moral Peril.  Unfortunately, it's that last one that really lends weight to the rest.  An immoral hero with no code who triumphs...just because...or to save others for external reasons, lacks the gravity of a Batman or Superman honor bound to capture villains rather than kill them. 

Note that the villain doesn't have to struggle to honor his code - moral quandaries can be fun, but most heroes have a code they honor and that's the end of the story.  The question is never, "should I break my code to score the win", but, "how do I score the win without breaking my code?"  That's an important distinction.  Heroes who know right from wrong, and act unhesitatingly to do the former rather than the latter, are compelling and attractive in ways their more spineless and weaselly brethren are not.

To take one forgettable example, a few years back, I read a series of superhero novels set in a vaguely steampunk setting.  Although it featured a lot of action and impact, the moral peril was presented solely in terms of god-like supermen moping about and refusing to save the day because of guilt or some other feeble excuse.  They weren't heroes who fought, they were angsty hipsters (beards and all) suffering from the crushing weight of responsibility placed upon their shoulders.  These were characters who faced moral peril, and failed - not heroes.  The fact that I can't remember the book's title or a single character's name speaks volumes about the quality of its writing and plot.

At the time, the explanation for the book's failure escaped me.  I didn't notice that the lack of Moral Peril left the book as a hollow shell.  In the words of the greatest film critic of our day, I didn't notice it, but my brain sure did.

Which brings us full circle to most modern attempts at recreating the feel of pulp writing.

Whoops, first we need to go back to Melanesia in the early 20th century.  The natives there watched white men show up, build runways and aerial antennas, and then accept gifts from the sky.  Clearly, they reasoned, clearing landing strips and building rotating circles pleased the gods, resulting in gifts from the sky.  They lacked the deeper understanding of things like radar waves, supply chains, and logistics that would have allowed their crude attempts to bear the same fruit as those of the newcomers.

Most modern day pulp writers are like those islanders.  They look back to the Bracketts, Hammetts, Howards, and Burroughses, and enact the same ritual writing, but lack the understanding of the deeper underpinnings that give the Loreleis, Contintenal Ops, Conans, and John Carters such emotional punch.

The writers in the latest Pulp Revolution - the Hernstroms, Burnetts, Niemeiers, (and hopefully Nyanzis*) - are the first ones I've encountered that aren't simple engaging in superficial copying of the old masters, but build their tales on the firmer ground of Moral Peril, and they are the first ones that I've actively sought out more, more, more from.

I'll keep looking for other authors that stand on the five pillars, naturally, but it's nice to know somebody out there gets it.

* Rawle Nyanzi has been writing on his survey of Appendix N works from the perspective of a millennial.  He recently announced that his survey was slowed by the writing of his own novel.  It will be interesting to see how somebody born another two or three decades removed from the pulps' original publishing date approaches writing pulps of his own.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Down the Dragon Hole

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After the heavy mythic fare of Thune's Vision, Make Death Proud to Take Us serves as a light chaser - at least the stories I've read from it so far.

Down The Dragon Hole, by Morgon Newquist, is a fun romp of a fantasy tale featuring...well, just what it says on the tin.  A bookish wizard teams up with a burly and clever soldier to kill a dragon.  That one sentence description dorsn't do the book justice, but the tale features enough little surprises and twists that saying anymore would do you a disservice.

There's nothing particularly groundbreaking or profound about Down the Dragon Hole, and that is no slight.  Not every story needs to be a grinding statement about the tragedy of life on this mortal coil or an epic tale of the clash of civilizations and the rise of dark lords thwarted by small people.  Sometimes a jaunt through a smaller adventure with a few gratuitous explosions, clever twists, and lighthearted settings is just what the book doctor ordered, and this story definitely fits that mold. 

This is a fun read with compelling characters who start shallow but display a slowly revealed depth that is a delight to read.  One of the characters performs a neat little heel-face turn - or face-heel, depending on your point of view - about half way through.  They might be heroes, they might be regular people thrust into a dangerous situation, and they might be the best of both, if Morgon's blog is to be believed, their adventures aren't over.  The ending certainly leaves that door open in a very natural way.

One thing I would like to highlight is that the point-of-view character is a woman.  She is not a badass chick with only one tragic flaw - that no one understands how truly wonderful she it.  She's a real, three-dimensional character, a bookish type with some moderate level of ability forced to push herself in ways that she never though possible.  She strives against the odds, possesses deeper reserves than she knew, and yet retains the feminine characteristics that allow her to be a fully realized woman rather than another cookie-cutter flawless and boring don't-need-no-man kind of hero.  It's a refreshing change from the usual fare.

On the downside, the story does contain a couple of minor anachronisms that jangle against the medieval fantasy backdrop, giving the setting the midwest-American feel that one sees in most fantasy literature these days.  I prefer a more historical feudal-with-magic, and if the language isn't high medieval English, it should at least avoid modern phrasing.  But this criticism is a personal taste and again, no slight against the author.

So if you're in the mood for a good dragon hunting adventure with a fun pair of heroes, then give Down the Dragon Hole a look.  This is the second story I've reviewed from the series - look for the rest here sometime in the near future.

And if you liked Down the Dragon Hole, you might like my own dragon-hunting novella, The King's Dragon, available at

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Vote for Granddaddy - D&D Belongs in the Toy Hall of Fame

By way of Gamers and Grognards:
That's right. There is a Toy Hall of Fame, and this year D&D is a nominee for induction! As of right now, it has the highest number of votes. Let's keep it that way and get D&D into the Toy Hall of Fame! It might need votes as it is up against a couple that could be heavy hitters (not the least of which is Transformers.) Follow  the link and cast your vote:  Toy Hall of Fame
How is this not already in the Toy Hall of Fame?  It has to be because it's more of a game than a toy, but it's up and in the running now, so let's make this happen.  D&D is already in Games Magazine's Hall of Fame, but why not vote anyway?  Any little bit of publicity that helps grow the hobby is worth a few clicks.

Friday, October 7, 2016

In Digital Stores Now: The King's Dragon

If you're not the kind of reader who pre-orders books.  Maybe you want to buy and read.  Either way, it's cool.  You don't have to worry about that any more, because today is the day that The King's Dragon is available for purchase and reading in the same day.

When is the last time you sat down and enjoyed a straightforward tale about a man forced to fight a dragon?  No tricks, no clever gimmicks, no 'quirky twist on the old cliches', just a good old fashioned red-in-sword-and-claw fight.  It's probably been a while, and how good would it feel to lose yourself in an epic battle like that?  Pretty darn good.

Of course, there's a little more going on in this novella than just a man meeting a dragon in single combat.  What would it take to persuade a man to fight against such long odds?  How would a king overcome an old soldier's natural reluctance to take up the sword once more?  And what would a father do to save his daughter from King, Dragon, and worse?  These aren't subplots - they are critical elements of the story of Jason Tavener, one-time champion and potential future dragon chow.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Puppy of the Month: Nine Princes in Amber

Picture above: Frisky, Jon, and Nate
It turns out Amber is a city, not a fantasy version of carbonite.  Who knew?  Before this month, not me!  We're talking a little Zelazny over there this month, so don't miss out.  My own brief review went up today, but you'll want to stick around as The Frisky Pagan expounds further on the book and Nathan runs through an incredibly detailed rundown of the book and makes observations far more profound than the first sentence of this blog post.

One for the Pulp Revolutionaries

This was over in G+, and it deserves to be shared with the wider world.  Jeffro posted this amazing quote by the space pirate Captain Jaren, of the Shibboleth, which perfectly encapsulates the feeling of Nethereal:
"Our plan to liberate Tharis went down in flames, thanks to Malachi. All that’s left of the resistance is one ship and a skeleton crew. Vernon’s offered us a way to start again somewhere else. Let the Guild keep this godforsaken Stratum. We’ll make our own world. By our rules."
That's a great quote, if that doesn't charge you up, if that doesn't make you want to read the book, if that doesn't make you want to find an impossible battle to fight, then you have a very sick soul.  I don't even know what to tell you.  Have fun watching the Kardashians, maybe?

 It charged me up, and inspired me to respond:
"Our plan to liberate the Hugos went down in flames thanks to Scalzi. All that's left of the resistance is one blog and a skeleton crew. Vox's offered us a way to start again somewhere else. Let Tor keep this Godforsaken market. We'll make our own media. By our rules."

Monday, October 3, 2016

More Hernstrom: Thune's Vision

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There truly is no writer working today who better exemplifies the Pulp Revolution than Schuyler Hernstrom.  I know what you're thinking, but talking about what we're reading lately is the point of this exercise, and I've been reading Hernstrom, so I'm talking about Hernstrom.  I wanted to see if the high quality of the couple of stories of his that made it into Cirsova were a fluke or not, and now that I'm half-way through Thune's Vision, I can happily report that they most definitely are not.

Thune's Vision is a collection of his short stories, and you should already know this because you should already have read them because they are that good.  Hernstrom writes with a dreamy lyricism that reminds me of Zelazny at times and Poul Andersen at his fantasy best at others.

I already told you about the first story in the collection, The Challenger's Garland, and it's epic feel.  The remaining stories, though still strongly Hernstronian, have a character all their own.  The second story, Athan and the Princess, feels more like a Howard story, and not just in the subject matter of a barbarian wandering the wilds.  He departs from that mold by making the titular barbarian the leader of a tribe who sets out, not in an aimless wandering, but on a specific quest to save his people.  Hernstrom imbues this story with a timelessness both in the prose he uses and in the epic sweep of history that both precedes and follows the action of the tale.

The third tale in the collection, Movements of the Ige, is the first wholly science-fiction tale in the collection.  Most of Hernstrom's stories take place in that odd twilight where science-fiction sticks its snout into the fantasy tent, but this one is a straight astronauts and aliens tale.  It is told from the point of view of the aliens, and here Hernstrom plays coy to good effect.  He presents the reader with impressions of the characters and action more than descriptions, and somehow this makes the alien culture and its response to humanity's intrusion into their world all the more strange.  Although the aliens would clearly be considered the 'bad guys' were the tale told from the human point of view, here we sympathize with them even as we curse them for their alien warlike assumptions.

Moving on to The Ecology of the Unicorn, we get the closest thing to a fairy tale style fantasy featuring a sorcerer, pursued by death himself, travelling into the land of fey to stave off death for a few more millennia.  The sorcerer's tower, the land of the fairies, and the inhabitants of each almost fit the typical clichés.  They could be the carbon-copy characters and places of hundreds of forerunner stories, but Hernstrom scatters just a few little details here and there to put a unique spin on each that gives them more depth and character.

The last tale in the book is The Saga of Adalwolf, but as a novella, I'm going to save a review of that for later.  For now, there are a couple of points that need to me made.  This book reads like a first time self-published author.  That is both a strength and weakness.  The upshot is that he is free to experiment, and those experiments generally pay off.  The downside is that each story contains a few clunky sentences that jangle against his normal fluency.  Working without a net is a tricky business, and though he does it well, any editor worth his salt would have called out a sentence like this:
The sorcerer made himself comfortable in a low slung chair made from the bones of a wyvern as he pondered his predicament over a goblet of mulled wine.
There's way too much going on in that sentence, and it sticks out in contrast when surrounded by passages such as this:
Molok rose from his resting place in the damp earth.  He mounted his black warhorse and rode through gray mist, past broken tombs and stunted trees.  Before a cliff's edge he brought the mount to heel.  Tendrils of fog coalesced in the heavy air, weaving themselves into a bridge of sorts, leading away into the void beyond the sky.  Molok snapped the reins and crossed over, entering the realm of his lord.
Now that's what I'm talking about.  That short and sweet cadence that sounds almost poetic, the light touch of detail that speaks volumes.  That's this book's strong suit.  While Thune's Vision is a step back from the flawless quality of Herstrom's edited works, it is at most a baby step, and shouldn't be off-putting to the potential reader.

Hernstrom's work meets that impossible to describe, but wonderful to behold dream of production companies everywhere; it's the same, but different.  He works well trod ground - fantasy lands that incorporate the ruins of great technological empires long crumbled into dust, or fairy tale-esque fantasies with wicked sorcerer's and tricksy little fey creatures.  But in Thune's Vision, he's doing it on his own terms, and adding a strong voice and just the right mix of new ideas, and new blend of old ideas, to give the reader the sort of sf/f that is in such short supply these days.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Available for Pre-Order: King's Dragon

My latest novella is now available for pre-order from

Jason Tavener is an old soldier gone to seed.  He just wants to live out his days raising a daughter and schlepping drinks for the humble farmers and tradesmen of a high mountain village.  His battlefield experience and the friendship of a king make that a more difficult proposition than it should be.  Four villages the dragon has razed, and the King believes Jason is the one man who can stop it.  On its surface this is a story about a king, a hero, and a dragon, but beyond that it is the story of a man and his duty to his family, his country, and his friends.  Sometimes the hardest part of doing the right thing is knowing which of the right things is most important.

If you love solid storytelling with a strong theme, fast action, and compelling characters, and you miss down to earth fantasy tales featuring good and evil, and epic fights for survival against all odds, then The King's Dragon is the book for you.

This is the first in a planned five part series of novellas centering on the theme of big damn lizards that need a good killing.  No ancient wise  mystics or misunderstood races - just the big scaly atomic bombs of fantasy literature - and the men and women tasked with ending their threat to the kingdoms of man.