The Pre-Tolkien Challenge, John Buchan

John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir

My only previous experience with JohnBuchan was his excellent African adventure story, Prestor John.  Now that was a real world adventure containing nothing of the fantastic, so I’ve been meaning to give his more fanciful stories a read, and this makes for the perfect opportunity.   The Rime of True Thomas should keep me out of trouble with the Barbarian Bookclub, having died a full fourteen years before Lord of the Rings was published, and for whom the last first story in The Moon Endureth, The Rime of True Thomas, consists of a full blown fantasy story rather than an Algernon Blackwoodian weird horror tale.

If you’ve read John C. Wright, you have an inkling of what Buchan brings to the table, and not just because the narrative framework of the Rime at hand consists of a King imparting the story of a conversation between a Scottish shepherd and a long-legged and long beaked bird called a whaup.  Not just any bird, this whaup has the presence of mind and the ancient wisdom passed down through his lineage to engange with the shepherd on matters of religion and biblical lore, and entreats the man to…well, the story waxes far more lyrical, but essentially the man casts a spell that allows him to hear the music of the spheres, that “Song of the Open Road, the Lilt of the Adventurer,” that infects him with an insatiable wanderlust.  The song also engages in a bit of the romantic lament for the passing of the pre-Roman inhabitants of the British Isles, and:

“Man must die, and how can he die better than in the stress of fight with his heart high and alien blood on his sword? Heigh-ho! One against twenty, a child against a host, this is the romance of life.” And the man’s heart swelled, for he knew (though no one told him) that this was the Song of Lost Battles which only the great can sing before they die.

That’s some Robert E. Howard style romanticism there.  That’s the kind of raw meat writing that you won’t find churned out of the word mines of NYC these days.  Unlike Howard, Buchan dips his quill into the ink of biblical lore on a regular basis, and that comfortable drift along the myths and history of Christendom imparts a dreamy concrete feeling to the Rime that stirs the heart.

Of course, as a son of the heather myself, Buchan’s verse cheats a bit given how the light brogue that ripples through the tale tickles my the ancestral memory buried in my own DNA.

And in the end, that’s what I find most charming about this short story – it isn’t really a story at all.  It has the elements of a story in the shepherd and the whaup and a King’s version of their talk, but at its root, the Rime is a vignette about the song that lies at the heart of existence.  It’s a fairy-dream experience that delivers a heady mix of lyrical prose and the wisdom of one’s elders in a way that reader’s of Lord Dunsany would find as comfortable as an old knit sweater.

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Tales From the Delta Quadrant

In a recent post at Vox Popoli, Vox Day dropped a heckuva a bon motte regarding Mary Sue characters:

Authors have a tendency to reveal more about themselves than they realize…

That sentence fragment got my noggin joggin’ about the novels that I’ve written to date, and my current work in progress in particular.  Longtime readers will notice that my protagonists tend toward middle-aged family men, a class of which I am a proud member.  Which makes the follow-on thought all the more relevant:

…often, more than they would like, when they write themselves into their stories.

Do I write Mary Sue’s?  Nope.  Not at all.  But I do write what I know, and that means characters that rank solidly in the delta sector of the sociosexual hierarchy. For those of you not familiar with the rankings, it’s a refinement of the alpha dog/beta male dichotomy that takes into account characters who lack the natural alpha’s leadership abilities or who just plain don’t understand relationships at all.  In this system betas are the high-achievers who flock to alphas and serve as loyal lieutenants, gammas are the perpetual outcasts convinced they are the secret kings of the world, and in between are the regular joes who do all the work that keeps society functioning, the deltas.

The classic expression of the virtues of delta-hood are the men of Easy Company, whose stories are told and shown in Band of Brothers.  These guys are the solid warriors who stand in the breach and do the daily grunt work.  Most of the men you know are deltas.  They write the code, they file the TPS reports, they crunch the numbers, and just generally go on about life in their own simple terms.  Give them a solid alpha to watch out for them, to direct their efforts as part of a team, and they can do great things.

As you might have guessed, I consider myself a prime example of a solid delta.  The pressures of high command are not for me.  I’m content to plug away in my cubicle making a little money for the corporation, so long as they make it worth my while, and pursue my hobbies in relative peace.  As a result, most of my protagonists also follow the delta mode.

Hey, write what you know, right?

Which isn’t to say that they lead boring lives.  They strive and plug along, and when push comes to shove they rise to the challenges life throws in their way – just like the men of Easy Company.  In fact, I contend that deltas make for the best stories.  They have plenty of room to grow, they can be pushed along by fate or led along by a determined alpha, and they are far more relatable to most readers than the rare alphas or the pathetic gammas.

Consider the unnamed protagonist of Space Princess.  He’s a regular guy who just wants to fix his sink on a late Sunday night, when he gets swept up in a galactic fight that pits civilization against raw brutality.  Through the entire story he gets passed along the chain of command, and in the final fight (of this story) rises to the challenge presented.  The character of Rome from A Moon Full of Stars really wants the village to consider him an alpha, but mostly just wants the respect and honor due to a man who takes risks for his community.  These are the stories that resonate with the fat part of the bell curve of men, and these are the stories that can help men find and accept their own place in our world, while still inspiring them to strive to be better men.

And aside from all of the vitamins they provide for the soul, they are just rollicking fun adventure stories.  What cubicle drone couldn’t use a little more of that old time heroism in his life?

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The Pre-Tolkien Challenge, Algernon Blackwood

This past weekend, The Barbarian Book Club challenged his fellow bloggers to read three Fantasy stories written before Lord of the Rings was published, review all three on your blog, focusing on pre-Tolkien differences of similarities, and making sure you let us know where we can find them for ourselves, and share the challenge.

And we are not alone. Drop a link to yours in the comments if you have one.

Project Gutenberg seemed a natural first stop.  It has a host of stories in the public domain, all of which were published two decades prior to Tolkien’s masterpiece.  Within three minutes I had four solid leads, the first of which, Men of Iron by Howard Pyle, proved to be a full blown novel and so got back-burnered.  Looks great, but not really appropriate given its real-world medieval setting.  Which left me with three books of short stories:

  • Four Weird Tales by Algernon Blackwood
  • The Moon Endureth by John Buchan
  • Tales of Wonder by Lord Dunsany

Algernon Blackwood is a new one for me.  His Infogalactic listing includes a quote from a leading Lovecraft scholar identifying “his work [as] more consistently meritorious than any weird writer’s except Dunsany‘s.”  High praise indeed, and yet where’s the love for the guy?  Am I just a poser for never having heard of the man or is this another example of Current Year types like Damon Knight dumping him down a memory hole to make more room for their own mediocre works?  Here’s to hoping the big brains who hang out at the Castalia House blog can help out once they get the backend back up and running smooth.

Whatever the reason for Blackwood’s relative obscurity compared to Lovecraft, I’m glad I found the guy.  The first story in his collection, The Insanity of Jones, kicks off with a bang:

Adventures come to the adventurous, and mysterious things fall in the way of those who, with wonder and imagination, are on the watch for them…

Whoo-ah!  Words to live by!  The story that follows tiptoes along the line of credibility by playing games with the reader by never definitively stating outright that what’s happening consists of real magic, or consists entirely of the ravings of a murderous lunatic.  That it merely leaves open the possibility of magic and reincarnation and past lives intruding on present day circumstances makes this perhaps a poor choice for Alexandru’s pre-Tolkien fantasy challenge.  Oh well, it’s a weird tale in the vein of pre-Toklienian literature when the genre borders were hazier than they are today, so let’s just run with it.

The story is written from the eponymous Jones’ point of view, after all, and in his view the world we know is but half of reality, the other half lies hidden behind a veil through which few people, and of course Jones is one of them, can catch glimpses.  As the wheel of life spins, certain souls get thrown at each other over and over again, and over the course of the story, Jones’ own life circles around that of a fat and piggish Manager that we gradually learn did Jones dirty in a previous life.  Fortunately, Jones also encounters the ghost of a man whom he worked with, a third wheel in the eternal rivalry between Jones and the Manager.  His friend, Thorpe, died several years before in this life, and now returns to help guide Jones  and reveal to him the secret that unites the three eternal players in this drama.

The story features hot emotions, long and dreamy asides punctuated by short and vivid physical descriptions, and an absolutely brutal ending that would make the worst splatterpunk Hollywood director proud.  All of this action weaves back and forth with a past-life torture scene that both parallels and sets the stage for the more modern tale of vengeance.  Blackwood handles the interweaving of these two episodes so gracefully that it seems that the supernatural is the only possible explanation for the events, with just enough room left over to doubt.  He also includes a veiled figure with burning eyes and a big sword that may or may not exist, but who keeps the chattering witnesses to the climax of the story at bay nonetheless.

If you want to read and decide for yourself, the story is only 29 pages long, and you can find it online here.


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No Escape, No Surrender

We’ve heard this song before.

That’s the refrain they always use. The last verse always, always wraps things up with a theme and variation on, “There’s no room in this hobby for those of you who have been here for decades.”

Let’s make a few predictions based on past instances of this particular strain of hobby cancer, shall we?  Wargames are a hobby for everyone, and they need to be made more inclusive, and that means we’re going to need to make a few changes around here.  Fundamental changes.

You know.  Because we love the hobby so much we really need to turn it into something completely different.  Like we did for sf/f literature, tabletop RPGs, vidya games, and comic books.  We need to strip away all of the things that make wargaming so wargamey, and make it a lot friendlier to people who don’t actually like wargames, and then it will be popular.  Why, it might become so popular that it can support a community of people who don’t actually play games, but only watch wargame themed reality shows on YouTube.  And then we can write rules for wargames to appeal to the people who don’t buy wargames, just wargame themed shirts and jewelry and stuffed animals.  That’s how you fix everything that’s wrong with this hobby that we all loved so much for what it is that we couldn’t wait to make it something that it isn’t.

Mark my words, that tweet is cancer.  It’s the initial, benign tumor settling into the hobby until it has enough support from thirsty men more desperate for approval from hobby-celebs than they are desperate for some hot counter on hex action.  Once it has that core of vocal support, it’ll explode into full malignancy, and then it’ll all be over but the Old School Revival by badwrongfans seeking to preserve the core of the hobby.

I give it two years, tops.

You might want to horde your classics and start thinking of an alternative name for wargaming right now.  We’re all going to need it.

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Infowars Fallout

The unpersoning of InfoWars by tech giants finally happened.  For months they and their enablers in the corporate media have been rumbling that “something must be done” about those uppity flyover rubes forgetting their place.  Having already chased numerous other unpersons out of the new public square, they grow ever bolder, now claiming the scalps even of centrists such as Gavin MacInnes.  At they rate they are going, it won’t be long before any expression of support for Trump nets users a ban – if not before the mid-terms, then assuredly before the 2020 elections.

If they can’t beat our arguments, if they can’t beat us at the meme game, then they’ll simply drive us from the field and declare victory that way.  Those of us in the fringe cultures have seen it happen again and again – in literature, tabletop gaming, and vidya games.  As above, so below.

Of course, life as a gamer has provided me some skill in anticipating threats and adjusting my strategies to counteract them while they are still in the early stages.  To address the threat of being shut out from the fledgling community of like-minded authors and gamers that has grown over the last few years, I will be redirecting my efforts away from platforms controlled by the Narrativists – those left-wing SJWs who view “Punch A Nazi, and everybody I don’t like is a Nazi,” as a valid position – and toward those controlled by my allies.

As it currently stands, that means a lot more time spent blogging and a lot less micro-blogging.  More importantly, it means more time spent tightening the bonds of bloggers and less hunting for followers on social media.  The bite-sized bantz and gotchya moments are fun, but all that work can easily be demolished with just a few well-timed complaint mobs, which makes the risks too darn high.

You may have already noticed the blogroll on the right sidebar with links to some of my favorite online personalities – go check them out.  When I can figure out how to include short updates or recent post titles in that sidebar, I’ll add that so you can quickly scan and decide which ones are worth checking out today, and which ones you are all caught up on.  Actual blog software used to handle that automatically, but it takes a lot more tinkering to get it to work on this independent website.  Give it time, we’ll get there.

Also expect to see more links to other bloggers, more recommendations for blogs to follow, and more response to other blog posts.  Here is where my important conversations will occur, in the more sedate and thoughtful realm of blog posts, and not in the zinger-happy realm of Twitter and the G-Plus.

You are also likely to see a lot more short zingers posted here as well.  Not every topic needs a 500-word essay, and rather than risk losing my social media megaphone, I’ll instead by throwing a lot more quick thoughts up in this space.  Here’s to hoping the changes work out well for the both of us.

To kick things off right, check out this great post by Daytime Renegade:

The world of geekery, for lack of a better world, is filled with this sort of thing. The mainstream requires ideological lockstep along nearly every facet of thought.

Don’t try to tell me it’s not political. I refuse to believe that all the people shut out by gatekeepers or fired from this or that position on this or that TV show or comic book or whatever coincidentally have diametrically opposed political views than their bosses and, despite never having any history of anything, suddenly develop a penchant for “harassment” and get axes . . . while actual hateful bigots and those engaged in even more unsavory proclivities maintain their positions of power despite often having no discernible talent for anything.

I mean, that’s just happenstance, obviously.

Can confirm.  I’ve been kicked out of more than one geek circle for failing to live up to the social standards of people who are really bad at socialization.  I’ve self-deported from numerous circles to escape the crabs-in-the-bucket syndrome as well.  Which is one of the reasons that I love the new culture and community that has formed in the aftermath of the Hugo Puppy campaigns.  New blood, eager for adventure, ready to laugh, and unfailingly supportive of each other’s projects, I wouldn’t risk losing these connections for all the money and fame in the world.

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The Pre-Tolkein Challenge

Alexandru Constantine, the barbarian book clubber, has an intriguing idea that should appeal to all fans of fantastic literature.

In his words…

  • Identify 3 Fantasy stories written before Lord of the Rings was published. 3 stories written before 1954.

  • Review all three on your blog, focusing on pre-Tolkien differences of similarities, and making sure you let us know where we can find them for ourselves.

  • Share the challenge.

Not sure what I’ll have for this breakfast, lunch, or dinner, but I’m looking forward to this exploration of a strange culture.  You know what they say, the past is a foreign country, and it’s one I wouldn’t mind visiting to see how it differs from today.

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Living in Omelas

Spoilers ahoy!  You’ve been warned.  I was holding out for today, but Emperor Ponders ain’t got no time for people who wait too long to read the good stuff.  His summary of “Law of the Wolves” is note perfect.  He compares it to Dunsany, and he ain’t wrong.

His summary of the flaws in Mortu and Kyrus is also note perfect, and if you’re any kind of a fan of sf/f and you read the title of this post, then you already know what story Ponders references when he says:

Without going into spoilers (that will come later,) the problem is that the story [Mortu and Kyrus] attacks is so dumb, that some of that nonsense, like it or not, gets stuck to the person doing the counterargument. Once I had realized that, I went over my mental list of the issues I had found and I realized that pretty much all of them existed because of the other story.

You can go read the rest, and then come back here, because in fine Puppy of the Month style, our analyses go off in very different directions.

If you’ve read Mortu and Kyrus, then you know that the classic pair of big burly barbarian and nimble little thief still has a lot of mileage left in it.  Especially when the barbarian is a hog riding, gene-enhanced warbeast whose people revolted against those who enslaved humanity, and the thief is actually a wise priest trapped in the body of a “harmless” little monkey.  You also know that, at its heart, it’s an answer to Le Guin’s Hugo Award winning short, er, story? called The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas.

It’s been three decades since Le Guin’s revolt against decency revolted me, so take with a grain of salt that my memory is hazy.  If it serves, Le Guin’s story isn’t really a story at all.  It’s more of a travelogue where nothing happens except Le Guin painting the picture of a utopia maintained by the misery of a child.  I won’t reread the story to confirm it – I’ve better thing to do than wallow in the mud of the 60s and 70s world of sf/f.  Too many pedophiles running rampant there, you see…

Speaking of which, just as a brief aside, has it ever occurred to you that Omelas is not just an example of the postmodern love of encouraging utilitarian thought through the use of narrow and impossible train/lever stories dressed up in sf/f clothing?  Consider for a moment what we now know of the scene in which Le Guin worked.

Omelas may not be a hypothetical story – it’s Le Guin justifying her decision to live within the real world Omelas of science-fiction and fantasy. Published a decade after the Breendoggle, in which the big names of the sf/f world came together to defend the child raping predilections of Walter Breen and Marion Zimmer Bradley, here was an author who had been living in Omelas for years.  It’s no surprise that she should write a story about her decision, nor that the Hugo voters would issue an award to a story that so succinctly…well, it either captured their own experiences, or justified their choice to live in Omelas, depending on who and how the modern reader wants to look at it form the comfy perch of forty-five years down the road.

Turning our attention back to Mortu and Kyrus, here’s a story with a much more satisfying ending.  A much more engaging mystery and plot.  A fun character duo who spend as much time arguing about the nature of their post-apocalyptic world as they do fighting the evil denizens of the white city.  It also has a brutal protagonist one step removed from barbarianism, but that one step makes all the difference in the world.  It’s the difference between the wisdom of low time preferences and the foolish savagery arguments about when it’s okay to abuse children.

The world needs more works by men like Hernstrom and less by women like Le Guin.  No matter what strange destinations Mortu’s motorcycle carries them toward next, you can be they’ll be as rich and meaningful as this first fantastic adventure in the white city.

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It’s Not Too Late

Among the recent crop of short fiction startup magazines, Cirsova holds a special place in my heart.  The editor’s determination to produce old school short fiction – the sort of thing that had become as rare as hen’s teeth in today’s market – inspired me to pick up the pen myself.  Such a fan am I, that I’ve studiously avoided submitting work to this fine periodical specifically so that I can count myself as a fan with no financial stake in it.  Every glowing review, and those rare criticisms, that I’ve levelled at it come from a desire to see it’s success grow as a fan first and a writer second.

If you haven’t yet, take a moment throw a few dollars Cirsova’s way.  Although it reached 100% funding yesterday, you still have a few hours to push that number up a little higher, particularly the ‘number of backers’.  It might not seem like much, but even a couple of dollars here and there mean more people voting for these sorts of projects, and the algorithms and people watching really do notice when a crowd forms.  More people backing leads to more people on the next one, and it is through this sort of incremental growth that the hot blooded newcomers to the world of sf/f literature will deconverge the whole industry.

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Life in the Hot Zone

Wildfires broke out all around the Mollison homestead this past weekend.  While working on the last few passages of my latest novel – part of a much larger project you’ll get the full dirt on this August 21st – we could smell the smoke, but didn’t worry.  These things happen.  About one o’clock in the afternoon, my neighbor shouted that we had to leave.  Confused, I looked out the window and saw nothing but blue skies.  He called over, “Go look in your backyard!”


When we weren’t looking, the local fire department had ordered an evacuation of the entire neighborhood.  So with a fake smile plastered on my face for the sake of the young ones, I spent the afternoon sweating with worry over the fate of the pets and the house within the cool confines of the library.  Saints be praised, the guys running the choppers and the fire hoses stopped the brush fires within 150 yards of the house.

Six hours later, from the same vantage

After a nice sunset, we settled down to watch the fires burn the valley walls for a while, and just as I sat down to return to work…the fires knocked out the power for three hours.

The ended with me and my youngest falling asleep in the hammock by the light of the fires, and blissfully untroubled by the buzz or sting of flying insects.  For once, they weren’t out in force, thanks to the pall of smoke hanging over everything.  You have to take your silver linings where you can find them.

The upshot is that the first draft of my next novel is done.  It’ll go to the editors once I complete a second pass.  Stay tuned, you’re going to love this one.

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Mortu and Kyrus

Walk, don’t run, to your local Amazon store and download Schuyler Hernstrom’s latest work.  Mortu and Kyrus rocks.  It’s as good as anything he’s written, and contains some major twists that make discussions of the book difficult without ruining the surprise.  Which is a shame, because this is a story well worth talking about.  I’ll have a full review over at the Castalia House blog soonish.  For now, all you need to know is that this novella is a glorious mashup of Mad Max, Dying Earth, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

You’ve got until Friday, and then I’m dropping a blog post here with all the bombshells spelled out, and just the title of that post will ruin a whopping big mystery within the story.  You’ve been warned.

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