Category Archives: Books and Lit
Back in the February, 1952 issue of Galaxy, Robert Heinlein set down some predictions for the ensuing 48 years. He revisited them in a 1966 collection, but died before he could see them come true. (Or, fail, in some cases.) Now, sixty years after he wrote them… let’s see how accurate they are. At predicting the world of 2012, much less the world of 2000.
Long-ass post going over list of 19 predictions after the bump.
Having just watched the new Conan the Barbarian movie, the Wagnerian influence on Conan is… blatant.
So, how many graphic novels get their own four-minute animated trailer? About the same number that are based on Wagnerian folklore. Expanded info is also on the video’s page, but some guy named Alex Alice came up with the idea to turn Wagner’s epic into a three-volume graphic novel, and pulled it off with some pretty stunning visuals. And a neat trailer.
Production was geared up towards a full-length feature film, with the above as a proof-of-concept, which is rumored to be moving back into development once the graphic volumes are out of the way. And that trailer indicates it could be pretty epic, provided it retains the awesome grandeur and doesn’t get bogged down by any of the obvious mires—for example, Disneyfication of the property for mass media marketing.
(Yeah, I’ll have real content to post eventually.)
I’m not going to lie, I don’t like most modern fantasy novels. Not that I find the old ones any better—it’s hard to deny Robert E. Howard was a misogynist racist, product of his time or no; and too much fantasy output is rehashing the same insipid tropes robbed from Tolkien. (David Eddings and Terry Brooks, often as not, read as Tolkien fan-fics.) Granted, a blanket statement, and one which I can point to many exceptions, but I’ll stick by it. By contrast, modern epic fantasies have carved out their own niche which partially bucks the Tolkien trend, and don’t always read like bad D&D campaigns transcribed into 600+ page tomes.
No, what I really hate about modern fantasy novels is their low quality of writing. Fantasy fans may vehemently disagree with me here, fantasy is one of the most denigrated genres within the genre-fiction ghetto. And in some cases, there’s a reason for that. Every now and then I’ll get a recommendation for a new fantasy novel, another five-star bestseller, and half the time the result is disappointment—due to the author’s inept prose, trite dialogue, flat characters, stock plot, flaccid developments, overuse of description, the author’s disturbing rape/torture fantasies, etc.
(I donno, maybe my tastes are too specific and I’m too hard to please. Lord knows I’ve had enough writing workshops, which are death on trying to read anything without a mental red pen in hand.)
So, when I see a capable, objective, coherent review that negatively criticizes a bestselling fantasy novel, I take note. (In part because far too much criticism comes from fictionalized fan-base infighting.) This would be Liz Bourke’s review for Michael Sullivan’s Theft of Swords; Sullivan was a big hit self-publishing his own work, and Theft collects his first two self-pub’d novels under the banner of an actual publishing house. By contrast, of the 45 Amazon reviews, only five are three-star or less.
At this point, whatever opinion I’d have had otherwise, the fanboy commentators have told me everything I need to know. What happens when someone has an opinion different from your own? Why, there must be something wrong with them. Let’s insult the reviewer, some kind of female historian intellectual who failed to objectively review even though she used objective data. (My personal favorite: taking quotes “out of context” makes any author look bad—of course, that’s exactly why I do it on my book review blog… not.) Two things strike me:
- Objectively – I do not think this word means what you think it means.
- To paraphrase Yahtzee: the objective for a critic is to critique, not put people’s balls in their mouth for a living.
This, as a whole, is my problem with the fantasy genre today. The review includes a number of “bad writing” examples which exceed anything I can pull out—”His father is a chivalrous knight of archaic dimensions. (p. 174)” is killer.
But more than that, my problem is with the fans; not just the stupidity in the comments section, but the fact that this is a bestseller. People continue to buy, defend, and propagate bad high/epic/fantasy works. It feels like the specific elements, the aesthetics and world-building and story arc, are promoted at the cost of quality and originality—in other words, popularity isn’t based on the novel’s merits but by its degree of catering to the genre’s tropes. That can’t be good for the genre.
To subvert this old article, which I more or less agree with: familiarity is what’s wanted, but only that which is familiar within the fantasy genre. And people wonder why fantasy is often so denigrated.
Needless to say, I’m done with the 30 Days of TV thing. While it did get me posting again, and regularly, I swamped myself with vacations and trips and guests and etc., so keeping up a regular daily post count was a pain in the ass. Hence the various missed days. And even though I skipped an entire week and a couple of outliers, it still ended up being a little too much to do in the middle. Thus, in the end, I’m pretty pleased with the 30 Days meme, even though I wouldn’t do another daily meme thing again in the foreseeable future.
I ended up goofing on Day 21; I’d originally figured to put Burn Notice there, if it won the fight with Firefly, to add some more non-Galactica variety. But when it came to posting I forgot, and was trying to catch up on lost days, and combined it with Galactica. There’s a bit of similarity between Burn Notice and Firefly, in that the Mal/Inara and Michael/Fiona relationships are oddly rocky, but between the two of them, I’d probably still go with the former because it’s far more unique as an anti-relationship.
In other news, I spun off another blog to cover all my book/pulp news/reviews, to keep this one more focused on gaming, technology, and more mainstream nerd stuff. The hope is to keep some regularity in my Logic posts, and do the rest when I get around to it. I thought about pulling all my Hard Case and Planet Stories posts into the new blog, but am far too lazy.
Needless to say, some more gaming-related stuff starts later next week… the finale for my Legacy of Fire game, some 3.5 to Pathfinder conversions, and some about GMing I’ve been thinking on 1.) since Alex said his “the hardest part about GMing is the voices” bit, and 2.) some bottled up crap from running Legacy and hearing about my friends’ Runelords game.
I debated about switching themes again when I saw the Matala release, but I’m tired of switching every couple of weeks, and I like the one I’ve got now. (Whatever the hell it’s called.) I’ll probably ride it out until WordPress.com finally adds Notepad Chaos to its ranks. (Love that theme.)
The latest in Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories pulp reprint line is a trilogy of early Robert Silverberg tales, written for the digest Science Fiction Adventures, which was in turn looking back to the old Planet Stories pulp for inspiration. The first book, Hunt the Space Witch! (hereafter referred to as HtSW!), contains seven of his earliest stories; the next two each contain three novellas. These stories have been out of print since they were in Ace and Dell paperbacks in the 60s-70s (one of the Ace Doubles I own includes “Slaves of the Star Giants”).
Hunt the Space Witch! is pure pulpy science fiction goodness. Look at the names of the stories it holds: “Slaves of the Star Giants,” “Spawn of the Deadly Sea,” “Valley Beyond Time,” “Hunt the Space Witch!” If those don’t catch your attention, you’re barking up the wrong tree. These are fast-paced tales of adventure and intrigue, of horrific monsters and beautiful star damsels; don’t expect a lot of complex development and you’ll get a lot of pulpy fun. There’s post-apocalyptic vikings and star-spanning empires, interstellar spy games, and a pair of time-travel tales. Like most pulp tales, imagination often outranks complexity, but Silverberg is a solid writer capable of great imagery and tension, two things pulp fiction needs most.
The stories in HtSW! are all medium-short, around 30-40 pages each. This makes them short enough to read in one sitting, without overdosing on the pulp, like popping popcorn. Their short length also constrains them to the basic “introduction, development, ending” formula, so they’re a rushed and choppy at points. It’s also an exercise in watching an author mature: the later stories are better than the earlier ones, in terms of pacing and development.
“Spacerogue” is definitely my favorite, an interesting tale of revenge for the titular mercenary. “The Silent Invaders” is also pretty good, about two warring species of aliens seeding spies into Earth culture. On the other hand, the two time-travel stories, “Slaves of the Star Giants” and “Valley Beyond Time,” are roughly identical. Well, not exactly, but they have a lot of similarities in their basic premise and execution, and it was like reading the same story again. The former is more interesting for its creativity, while the latter is more developed, but far less interesting, culminating in a somewhat random encounter before an abrupt ending.
As with all pulp-era fiction, everyone’s tolerance level varies, but if you’ve picked up other Planet Stories books or have read a lot of ’40s/’50s-era fantastic fiction, you should be right at home. Personally, I’m glad to see Planet Stories branching out into more of the “ray guns and rocket ships” stuff; I’m a fan of their brand of planetary romance and swords-and-sorcery, but variety, as they say, is the spice of life. It’s also worth noting that this is a huge book; the last Planet Stories I found, the Before They Were Giants comp, was relatively huge compared to the rest of the line, and HtSW! dwarfs that by some 30 pages. Also, the price: the Planet Stories pricetag has fluctuated around $15.99 since the change in formatting, which is pretty decent, considering some pulp reprint collections of the same general page count (200-350) have MSRPs of twice that.
I have to say, that’s one of my favorite Planet Stories covers yet, done by the amazing Kieran Yanner; the girl-in-the-nebula is hella-slick, and the old-school primary colors rocket ships are a nice touch. Paizo also has a wallpaper version up. Sadly, the next two books in Paizo’s Silverberg trilogy look a bit different; they’re good, too, with heavy James Bond vibes, but for my money HtSW! is the best of the three.
(spoilers, if you haven’t read the two previous Skaith books)
Reavers of Skaith is the conclusion of Brackett’s Skaith trilogy. When we last saw our intrepid heroes, things were looking up: Eric John Stark managed to contact one of the last ships out of Skaith as the starport was closing. While Stark decided to stay behind, his foster-father Simon left on the ship with a small party, hoping to plead their case to the United Planets agency.
Things immediately take a drastic turn: the starship’s captain turns on his passengers, capturing Stark and Simon, and with two other starships embarks on some merry brigandry as they loot the dying planet. Stark has to reform his shattered band of allies… heck, he first has to escape from the traitorous starship captain and meet up with his friends. With the starships banished, and the planet’s sun quickly dying, things quickly break down. The Wandsmen still want to keep control, and are doing the best they can (in their narrow-minded, “how it’s always been” way), but find themselves hard-pressed with all the refugees abandoning their fields and heading to the Wandsmen for handouts.
The Skaith trilogy comes to its explosive, sweeping conclusion. As Stark heads south along the Sea of Skaith, we get to see a lot more of the planet’s civilizations, cannibalistic tribes worshiping the dying sun. Stark faces off against various mutants and pirates, and the titular starship reavers, intent on plundering the planet before it freezes over. Stark has to topple the Wandsmen, or at least have them to realize their errors, in order to evacuate the planet in time. And there’s a nice return to prophecy at the end, an interesting surprise.
Much like the last two books, Brackett has a strong pen and a lot of flair for this kind of thing. Reavers has less of the epic battles and action compared to the previous book, focused more on Stark traveling the world, but the final few showdowns are pretty slick. And seeing more of Skaith’s weird “dying earth gone medieval” culture is a plus. Despite being the longest in the trilogy, it feels short, rushed at points, and several plot points are hand-waved, have too-contrived explanations, or are oddly random. The opening twist, after the high-note ending of the last book, is one of them; it’s an interesting setup and great mechanic, but it could have used some more foreshadowing.
Even with those complaints, Reavers of Skaith is a good read. I’m torn between it and Hounds as my favorite in the trilogy, but I lean towards Reavers because it introduces a smidgen of science fiction tech into Skaith’s otherwise primitive world. And the idea behind it is awesome. It’s a worthy conclusion to a solid trilogy; the ending is equal parts satisfying and bittersweet.
It’s even more bittersweet in that Reavers was the last thing Leigh Brackett published; two years later, shortly before dying of cancer, she submitted the first draft for The Empire Strikes Back. And while the movie was built around two other drafts, you can see a lot of Brackett in the film.
(slight spoilers, for those who didn’t finish The Ginger Star)
The Hounds of Skaith picks up after the conclusion of The Ginger Star. Eric John Stark has ventured across the dying planet of Skaith in search of his foster-father Simon, destroying the citadel of the ruling Wandsmen in the process. Now, he has to venture back across Skaith, to the planet’s single starport, before the Wandsmen close the planet off for good. For you see, Skaith is dying, and many of its citizens want to leave before its sun dies and the planet freezes, while the Wandsmen want to retain power and keep the status quo.
This volume is filled with action, and all the epic battles the previous book was a short on. Skaith is devolving into civil war, as more and more groups realize that Old Sun is indeed dying, and that they must escape before the long freeze. Stark continues his role as a pawn of prophecy neck-deep in Skaith’s politics, as he unifies these rebellious groups to fight the Wandsmen. And to make things more difficult, he knows he can’t trust some of them.
It only took a few chapters to remember why Leigh Brackett’s Ginger Star is one of my favorite Planet Stories books: it’s got a lot of the Barsoomian/swords-and-planets fare, yes, but when Brackett grabs the reins it transcends into something more. Most of the early Planet Stories line was filled with pure Barsoomian novels—Almuric, the Kane of Old Mars trilogy, and Otis Aldelbert Kline, the man who would be Burroughs. For my money, Brackett is on the top of the heap: she writes damn fine swords-and-planets without devolving into the same-old, same-old pastiche/homage to Barsoom. (Nothing wrong with riffing on Barsoom, that’s why I buy Planet Stories after all, but Brackett manages to add so much to the genre that I consider her writing the genre’s high-water mark.)
Brackett’s prose is top-notch, arguably some of the strongest writing in the early Planet Stories books. Her characters are flat compared to Ginger Star or The Sword of Rhiannon—Stark’s love interest, Gerrith the prophetess, barely shows up—but Brackett makes up for it with plenty of action and adventure. And Skaith is filled with all manner of wondrous alien life: telepathic northhouds, various humanoids created by induced mutations, the deadly carnivorous Runners who run within sandstorms and attack in the ensuing chaos, a xenophobic government struggling to keep order, cannibalistic doomsday cults, and farers, hippies who wander from city to city, living off the generosity of the government. Quite a lot of inspiration to be drawn from all that.