You’re Welcome, Hugos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugo Dalenda Est

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

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Hugo Awards 2016: Message Delivered

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

 
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A Message From Literally Super Duper Hitler

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

Oh, Pepe, you shortcut to
humor, is there any post
you can’t improve?

Time Magazine called me racist when I was just a Republican.
Time Magazine called me super-racist when I was just a Tea Party Type.
Time Magazine is now calling me a super-duper-racist now that I’m part of the alt-right. 

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

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

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

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

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

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Discovering Stories > Unwrapping Them

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

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

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

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

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

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





This same process happened to tabletop RPGs.
Source.

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

Apparently wargames are undergoing the same sort of process.

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

Didn’t notice a single hex-and-counter wargame at the vendors at GenCon. Lots at WBC, of course. (Can’t remember seeing hex ANYthing at GC).

— Lewis Pulsipher (@lewpuls) August 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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Convention Analysis

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

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

Video Games:  We start with an obvious search that should show the sort of overweight couch sloths that the anti-GamerGate crowd assures us make up the standard model. 

video game convention

It’s a crowd scene, so the sample number is pretty good. Despite that, it doesn’t look like there’s a single belt-extension in the crowd.

Wargaming: These guys sit around painting and reading and watching the sorts of grainy black and white documentaries that the The History Channel used to show before it went all-in on the midgets and hoarders.  Or is that The Learning Channel…  Either way, wargaming doesn’t burn many calories, so surely these guys need to buy two tickets for every flight they take.  The best wargame convention in my country is Historicon, the annual convention of the Historical Miniatures Wargaming Society.

historicon

There’s a couple of heavy-set gents in the photo, but for the most part it’s just a bunch of regular guys who don’t need to shop at the local shower curtain store.  Fat fingers and detail painting 15mm figures is a losing combination. 

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


knitting convention

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

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



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Graveyard of Empires…and Pride

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

It looks like a tight, compact wargame.  It’s been a while since I’ve had time to sit down with a deep game like Advanced Squad Leader or a monstrosity like Stalingrad Pocket or TSR’s Air War.  Until the empty nest hits and my four lovely little time sinks move out, I’ve contented myself with lighter fare such as Awful Green Things, Outpost Gamma, and now hopefully Khyber Rifles.  The latter is a wargame based on the campaign that kicked off the British withdrawal from Afghanistan back during the height of their empire days.

This past weekend, the boy and I found ourselves with an empty house and an hour to kill.  With the impending school season this may have been our last chance for a while to squeeze in a quick wargame.  It didn’t work out so well.  Apparently, you can take the massive wargames away from a wargamer but you can’t take the massive wargames out of a gamer.

We sat down, set up the small map and handful of counters – each side gets around 20 to 25 of them – and reviewed the rules.  That’s when things came to a screeching halt.

Khyber Rifles is a standalone title, but it is also part of a series of games built on a common ruleset framework.  The package comes with a four page ruleset detailing the universal rules, and an extra page listing the force set-up and scenario specific rules.  For the record, the other scenarios in the Hand of Destiny series are Lettow-Vorbeck, an East African WWI game, and Custer’s Final Campaign, the battle of Little Bighorn.

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

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

 For the love of…of course it’s going to be just that simple, this is a pocket wargame designed to be streamlined.  You shouldn’t need to cross reference anything with anything to play a game like this.  Smooth move, Dad.  Real nice.

Now that the last wrinkle is out of the way, we can get in a game or two and contribute a little more to the best dang wargame blog on the internet.  Look for a full review and write-up of Khyber Rifles over at Castalia House sometime before the heat death of the universe.

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John Podhoretz – The Abortion Lobby’s Dream Opponent

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

Johnny P., protecting Ze Party from the real enemy –
those who threaten his quisling sinecure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adventure Game Inspiration: The Cassock and the Sword

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

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

To that end, I looked through the archive of freely available pulp magazines from PulpMags.Organd downloaded the November 1946 issue of Mammoth Adventurespecifically because the cover art and story featured a man swashbuckling his way through New Spain.  You can’t get much more inspirational than a story featuring a fighting holy man and a swashbuckler fighting against a corrupt city government.
A monk climbing a wall
while sword fighting? Can’t
get much pulpier than that.

In Tom W. Blackburn’s “The Cassock and the Sword”, that’s exactly what you get when Juan Espadin, impoverished noble from the Old Country, crosses a member of the powerful local ruling family.  His first day in town he rescues an older woman being abused by an old man, only to find that he has inadvertently spoiled an attempt by the underground resistance to capture a member of that corrupt ruling family by killing the man.   Desperate to escape the city, he follows the old woman, revealed to be a sultry young woman named Pepita, to a jungle camp that serves as the headquarters for the resistance.  There he crosses swords with the titular sword-fighting fighting monk, Paco, and his support is bought by Paco and Pepita with promises to aid him in his journey to Panama if he firsts helps free the city from the grip of the despicable Lozan family.

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

This story gives a classic example of a corrupt city government and the way in which one powerful family can use the power of the purse and city guard to cause all sorts of mayhem for player characters.  It does so in a simple enough manner for any DM to implement at his table.  It shows how death is not the only fate to follow poor dice rolls – a good capturing, tossing in the castle dungeon, and villainesque, “I’ll give you the night to think on how I’ll kill you in the morning,” can lead to thrilling escapes, more sword fighting, and everything you want from a tabletop adventure game.

It even includes a less-than-holy cleric whose service to god has more to do with a well handled blade than with a sacramental delivery service.  He may not be terribly pious, technically he may not even be a member of the clergy whose robes he stole, but the stout Brother Paco serves God in his own way, and it’s a way in which any cleric PC should be proud to serve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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On Vance and Hernstrom, A Comparative Defense

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

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

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

We don’t live in that world.

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

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

Into the dying earth steps Cugel the Clever, a man who possesses no qualms about lying, cheating, or stealing his way into any valuable object that crosses his path.  We all know men like him, and in oppressive times the number of Cugel’s swell.  They are just one more battle to fight in our daily lives, and even as we laugh at or admire Cugel’s cleverness, he serves as a reminder of the real world Cugels we face every day.  Like the world of the Dying Earth, Cugel gives us no respite from our own daily grind.

This is not to say that Vance is a terrible writer.  His sprawling adventures feature some of the most colorful characters, creatures, and wizardry ever put to paper.  Aside from the oppressive tone of the setting, Vance’s prose stand tall in the field, and his tales are enormously enjoyable.  This is only to say that Vance’s writing in the Dying Earth stories utilizes a dark tone works better as a counterpoint to brighter days.  The counterpoint for those who live in the twilight times, who feel in the wind a darkness gathering, is lighter tales of adventure that use doom as a spice rather than a main ingredient.

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

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

Holding Schuyler up as the next step in evolution among short fantasy fiction writers, as taking Jack Vance’s style and moving it forward, may be a controversial statement.  You may disagree, and more power to you.

But at the end of the day, at least be open to the idea that someday, somebody will surpass Vance.  Don’t fall into the nostalgic trap of believing that the classics are the best there are or ever will be.  That alternative leads to the notion that of Vance as the end of history from a fantasy short fiction perspective, and what future could be bleaker than a future in which fantasy fiction has already peaked and its best days lie in the past? 

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