Friday, November 30, 2007

The Best Time

From the journal of Lord Whimsy (brought to my attention via Steph, of course):



I also today came across a note I wrote to myself a few years back:

Whenever I feel smart, I invariably discover have done one of two things: either I have mistaken something trivial for something important, or I have failed to realise my own error and am in fact wrong to think I'm so clever.


Wow, I sure am smart.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Ones Nobody Knows: Dead Girls

Richard Calder's world is not a pleasant one, but it does possess an undeniable, if terrifying, beauty. There are sequences in his early novel Dead Girls that will never leave my mind's eye, I'm sure.

I'll say right up that the sequel to this astonishing novel, Dead Boys, unnerved me so much I still haven't been able to bring myself to read the final book in the series (Dead Things). Calder pulls fewer punches than anyone who's ever mapped this particular bit of terrain.

One of the least-spoken truths of "cyberpunk" science fiction is how little of it there actually is, and how little of THAT is actually any good. I knew that by the time I came across Calder's novel in a bookstore, I was jaded with the whole cyberpunk thing, and only two things drew me in -- the William Gibson endorsement ("Dark, edgy and inflicted with just the right degree of lyricism") and the striking cyber-Nagel portrait that formed the cover. Pouty lips and micro-processors: what young man could say no?

Well evidently plenty did, since this is one of The Ones Nobody Knows. Calder does seem to have some sort of following, based on his Wikipedia page, but I've met darn few people who've ever heard of him.

Upon the most recent re-read, I have to admit that Calder tries to pack way too much exposition into this slender book. There's entire chapters where what plot exists simply grinds to a halt while somebody or other recites yet another massive elegy of how times have changed in the twenty-first century. It says something about the power of Calder's vision that despite this, the book still grips me.

Unnerving. In Calder's world, massive improvements in technology have made androids indistinguishable from human beings. Except that they're not human. They're not "real". They are, if you want to look at it this way, dead.

Which means, of course, that you can do any damn thing you want to them. If I tell the novel is mostly set in Bangkok, you can probably fill in the blanks there, can't you? Well, actually, you may think you can, but I've got twenty bucks says Calder's mind runs in darker channels than yours.

This is a book of really really cool ideas in which almost nothing happens. And what does happen is largely incomprehensible. But cool. You've got Primavera, teenage assassin sexdroid vampire girl, and Ignatz, her lover, who are on the lam having broken out of the quarantine around London. See, these androids, there's a plague, and girls grow up to BECOME androids, and there's ethnic cleasning, and a Fairy Queen, and... Yeah. I don't really know how to get into it all.

And it gets really weird. I mean, you think it starts weird, I know, check the opening paragraph:

They smashed through the door; I vaulted the balcony, running. It was midnight in Nongkhai City and I was lost. The story so far? The Pikadon Twins - notorious henchgirls to Madame K -- had pursued me to the banks of the Mekong. But where was the Mekong? Too dark, too quiet -- and I used to bright, clamourous Bangkok -- this town had me drunk on shadows.


But the intensity of grammar, punctuation and vocabulary rises as the book proceeds. Calder tells his tale in a swirl of noir tough-guy English, scientific doublespeak, French fashion terminology, with Thai and Serbo-Croatian odds and ends thrown in here and there.

Some great lines, though:

The cheaper the femmes, I thought, the cheaper the fatales.


Come on. You gotta give it up for that one. Come on. And the half-page footnote on Primavera's "hemline neurosis" is worth the price of entry alone.

But the story folds in on itself, one universe opening into another, each one weirder than the one before, and Calder doesn't take many pains to make sure we've come along with him. As Primavera and Ignatz push ever-deeper into the twisted world they take for granted, we get more and more inured to the horrible things happening around them, so that the distinctions between real and artificial really begin to matter to us -- when a girl is being tortured, it carries weight if she was born human or grown in a vat. Or in fact if the universe in which she exists was created "naturally" or "artificially".

Which is ridiculous of, course, and that's a big part of what Calder is talking about. The distinctions we invent and then spend so much time and effort delineating, as though it mattered where somebody came from or what they look like. The "dead girls" of this terrible world accept their fate (indeed, they are engineered to do so) and it all comes down to aesthetics. How prettily they pout when threatened with torture and execution.

In the end, Dead Girls asks some very troubling questions about the nature of the sexes and what we want from each other, and what might happen if some of the controls on our behaviour started to slip. It walks us into a world that is a dark, disturbing shadow of the world we live in, rather than some future that might come to pass. And I think it challenges everyone who reads to consider how they feel about dead girls and the boys who love them.

Fire and Brimstone!

Lavatastic!



Today was a pretty exciting day in some parts. Today marks the official release of Fire And Brimstone! A Comprehensive Guide to Lava, Magma and Superheated Rock! Indeed, the thrills are practically non-stop around hereabouts.

See, WAY back at GenCon, there was a group decision that a comprehensive set of rules to govern all situations regarding the use of lava in role-playing scenarios needed to be published. The group making this decision was well-informed, experienced, energetic, astonishingly good-looking and thoroughly drunk. Most of us, I suspect, promptly forgot the decision had been made and all would have come to naught.

But no.

For TONY did not forget, and got the ball rolling in the post-GenCon haze, and so many people contributed that it's impossible to list them all. Luke and Matthew (hm, but not Mark or John) and Deb stepped up with mighty gifts, and tons of folks just threw ideas into the pot and it all honestly and truly came together. Joe and Suzi over at Expeditious Retreat Press offered to host it and we were off.

And THEN somebody suggested we get some celebrity quotes to plaster the back cover with and to throw around in our marketing efforts. And hoo boy. Did we ever get some celebrity quotes.

Let's start with GARY GYGAX. Just the guy who invented the whole hobby in the first place. The Grand Old Man of D&D. Wow.

But it doesn't stop there.

Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms D&D setting. Steve Kenson, creator of True20. Scott Rouse, Senior Brand Manager at Wizards of the Coast (they publish D&D, for those of you in bleachers). Speaking of Wizards of the Coast, how about PETER ADKISON, the guy who started the company in the first place? Or how about Robin D. Laws, creator of the awesome game Feng Shui and one of my personal game design heroes? How about Sue Cook, half of the Sue and Monte team that are responsible for much of what happened to this hobby over the last ten years? How about Wil Wheaton, who I believe is an actor. And plays D&D. And Paul Campion. I know you don't know who he is, but he was the lead texture painter on the Balrog for Fellowship of the Ring -- so he's got, like, lava expertise. You know.

All these folks gladly donated their time and their brainpower to supporting this project. It's been a long haul from GenCon and without everyone's enthusiasm and hard work, it wouldn't have happened. It's very exciting to have the opportunity to work with some of the funniest, smartest, and (as mentioned before) most astonishingly good-looking people I've ever met. I fit right in.

And no matter what, you gotta admit that's a pretty stellar lineup of celebrity quotes. If that doesn't encourage you to download this FREE PDF RIGHT NOW, I don't know what to say to you people. Kids these days, I don't understand.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

KHAAAANNN!!!



That is all.

The Ones Nobody Knows: The Borribles

Sidney. Torreycannon. Vulgarian. Stonks. Chalotte. Napoleon Boot. Bingo. Oroccoco. Adolf. And Knocker, of course, Knocker.

I haven't read Michael De Larrabeiti's masterpiece The Borribles in probably twenty years, but I still know all their names. They lived in our minds as big as Han Solo, Frodo and John Carter, and to this day I can recall them with such clarity it makes me wonder what the hell IS GOING ON inside my brain.

Vulgarian, stomping exhaustedly into the Chief Rumble's bathroom. "All the way from the Stepney. Bloody miles."

Stonks holding the door open with his massive strength. The treachery of Napoleon Boot. Knocker's suspicion of the girls, Chalotte and Sidney. Oroccoco, from "Tooting, man, Tooting." It's all there. Hasn't gone anywhere.

Borribles, for those of you who aren't Glenn or Alex, are kids who never grow up, and live on the streets of big cities, stealing and fighting and trying to stay one step ahead of the Special Borrible Group of the London Police. Their mortal enemies are the Rumbles, humanoid rats who love nothing better to eat than fresh Borrible meat. When it's discovered that the Rumbles are planning an invasion of Borrible territory, the resourceful street punks assemble a Dirty Dozen (well, an Egregious Eight) to infiltrate the Rumble stronghold and eliminate the High Council of the Rumbles.

These few (plus a couple of hangers-on) make their way across a freakish, ghastly version of London where adults are perilous monsters, underground streams flow in grotesque, filth-caked channels and everywhere lurks danger, betrayal and death.

Few worlds have been evoked in fiction with the compelling vision of de Larrabeiti's London. Almost a separate character in its own right, it is foul and beautiful in the same view. We see the city mainly through Knocker's eyes, and his dispassionate view keeps the revolting nature of so much of it at bay enough for us to understand that this is home to him and his brethren. And as it transforms during the course of the story, it illuminates the emotional journey that all the Borribles are forced to undergo in the carrying-out of their quest.

Also, The Borribles has names. Cool names. Just look at them up there. Tell me those aren't some awesome names right there. There's cool names in the DEDICATION -- "For Whitebonce, Spikey and Fang." It's hard to resist a book with names like that, I gotta say. One of my favourite moments is when Knocker gives Adolf his new name: "Adolf Wolfgang Amadeus Winston!" Yeah. There's a bad guy named Flinthead. Tell me you don't want to see HIM come to a bad end.

Damn, I need to go read this again.

I just picked it up and discovered I'd totally forgotten about the map. There's a map of the few square miles of London that the epic takes place in -- from Battersea park to Wimbledon Common. So then of course I browse over to Google Maps and blow up the satallite photos of London and yeah, there it all is: Battersea Church Road, Fulham Power Station where Adolf joined up, Engandine Street where they fell into Dewdrop's clutches... sigh.

You know, I thought this would be easy. I thought, "I'll just write about how much I love these books. It'll be a snap." But it turns out I can't just write "I love this book" and be done with it.

WHY did this book captivate me so much? I mean, aside from the fact that it's so very very good?

Maybe because it's so hard. Bad things happen in this book, to people you've come to love. Things they don't deserve -- this is not a morality play where good is rewarded and evil is punished. De Larrabeiti's world is a nihilistic one, where no answers come to those who struggle, where death is neither consummation nor tragedy -- unless it happens to be your friend. The only real morality here is that of the Borribles themselves -- "If you're my friend, follow me around the bend." The Magnificent Eight (Ten) do what they do not ultimately out of any desire to do the RIGHT thing, but because they're in it together and they'll see it through.

Maybe because these weird little rough-and-tumble Peter Pans of the High Street band together in such a tight fellowship. Growing up in suburban Canada, there was little opportunity for the sort of intense bonding the Borribles go through. My friends and I weren't in mortal peril, we weren't taking a stand against the world, we weren't faced with implacable enemies who would destroy us and our entire culture if we didn't stick together. But we kind of wished we were.

And maybe just because it's so very very good. And has dialogue like, "That's sorted you out, weasel-chops."

But maybe because in the end, de Larrabeiti resists providing any easy answers. The Borribles implicates its heros in many crimes -- theft, murder, even genocide. They hate learning and change, regard outsiders with intense xenophobia and oppose anyone who speaks of "improving things." And they are clearly not entirely wrong to do so. In de Larrabeiti's world, the only people who speak of improvement are those who see personal advantage in that improvement. The only people who rise to power are those who are willing to exploit others and undermine the very foundation of their own society.

Heros win nothing but a name, and sacrifice everything. The Borribles makes you wonder if it's worth it, while at the same time making sure you love watching it happen.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Ones Nobody Knows: The 81st Site

I recently received a treasure from Abe Books: a hardcover edition of a book that I absolutely LOVED as a kid, and have never seen since.

And so I have decided to embark on a little "series" of talking about four books that have brought me intense joy, and that I sometimes think nobody but me (and maybe the folks I first read them with) have ever heard of.

We'll start with the one that just arrived, a book that I literally have never met anyone who's ever heard of it.

The 81st Site by Tony Kenrick



Yeah, I know. You've never heard of it. And given that it's been out of print for 25 years, chances are you'll never hear of it. So I'm not going to be worrying about spoilers here.

But this is the book that made me first want to make movies. The final sequence of this book is a nerve-wracking aerial action sequence that wads up every James Bond movie ever made into a neat little ball, stuffs it in its mouth and chews it into a soggy pulp. I read this book a million times at least, but I read just that sequence a MILLION MILLION times. Even before the old copy from Abe arrived, I could still recite beat-by-beat every moment of that sequence. It still makes my pulse rise, just thinking about it. I don't know anything about Mr. Kenrick, but the finale of The 81st Site puts him very high on my list of favourite writers ever.

Look, just check the premise of the book: After WW II ends, a disgruntled Nazi spends thirty years looking for the 81st V-1 launching site, the site that was never found and destroyed by the Allies after the war. His mad bad-guy dream is to wreak a final revenge on the English by restoring the site and carrying on the struggle single-handedly.

And, as the back of the edition I read as a kid said,

THIS time, the Third Reich will win.

THIS time, they will only need one rocket.

Because THIS time, they have a nuclear bomb...


Huh? Huh? That practically defines AWESOME. What a brilliant idea. And it only gets better. Much, much better. The climactic sequence is so outrageously cinematic it plays out in my head, shot for shot, with ease. Even as a twelve-year-old I could run it in my imagination, sound effects, close-ups and everything.

All that said, I kind of get why it wasn't turned into a movie. Although the final sequence is indeed mind-blowing (I'm not building this up at all, am I?), I think you could argue that the fact that none of the novel's main characters are involved at all diminishes its movie-ability. It doesn't bother me any, but me and "characters" in story-telling have a bit of a rocky relationship at best.

But other than that, I greatly admire Kenrick's construction. He runs two stories in parallel; the tale of the aforementioned disgruntled Nazi, following his decades-long struggle to find the site, assembling his team of collaborating, a bank heist, a couple of killings and such good stuff. These are BAD guys. At the same time, he intercuts with the story of an American insurance investigator in London who comes to suspect that the explosion he's been sent to review might have a more unusual cause than first believed.

As the Nazi brings his fiendish plot together, the insurance guy starts figuring out what's going on, and the two come together for their final showdown just as the last rocket is fired.

Excellent stuff, all of it, and Kenrick's precision with details makes not only the verisimilitude stronger, but allows for his clever protagonists (of course the insurance investigator has a beautiful girl by his side) to demonstrate their cleverness with mailboxes, book elevators, milk trucks and map coordinates. It's all very hectic and part of the fun is that they're basically ordinary folks who don't suddenly turn into action heroes. They spend most of the story running away from scary people, but being very charming while they do so.

Still, it's that final sequence that really blows this book into my personal stratosphere of literary good times. I have to fight desperately against the urge to actually recite the whole thing, beat-by-beat any time I start talking this book up to others. Sometimes I just recite it to myself because, well, nobody else cares. I actually starting writing it in screenplay format for this blog, but that's a little more obsessive than I'm entirely comfortable with.

But it features a shoot-out between a Focke-Wulf 190 and a Tornado jet! A Hercules cargo plane trying to catch a buzz bomb in mid-air before it plunges below 500 feet and the ATOMIC BOMB goes off over the middle of London! Crash landings! High-speed drills! Missiles! Helicopters! Parachutes! Evil Nazis! Suave British secret agents! Exploding aircraft!

If you really want to hear how it all goes down, corner me at some party (because I'm at SO MANY of those) and just say, "Hey, so how DOES The 81st Site end, anyway?" And hang on.

More "Ones Nobody Knows" to follow! Stay tuned if you like reading reviews of stuff you'll never read.

Do YOU Get Paid?

Classic Ellison. Could he be any funnier, any more savage, any wiser?



From Dead Things ON Sticks

Monday, November 5, 2007

Love Labour

MAYBE some of you noticed a wee little change on the site recently.

Okay, I'm reasonably sure nobody noticed, but it was a good opening line and you never want to throw away a good opening line.

Anyways, I added a little line of type to that funny Communist-propaganda-kind-of image the site has always had up in the upper right corner. See? Right there. Now it says "A Labour of Love". It didn't used to. Honest.

That image never had an explanation. I just kind of liked it, even though it didn't much fit in with the rest of the site's design. But when I was casting around for ideas on creating this site, it really seemed to me that I wanted some element of it that spoke of craft and effort and actual hard work. I can't draw, so I knew I'd have to FIND an image if that's what I was going to use. I poked around in a lot of corners, but when I saw that image it spoke to me.

My original idea was to have a record or a turntable, but I thought that would be kind of lame since I don't actually scratch records. I guess I don't do much sledgehammering, either, but somehow it seems less dishonest.

ANYWAY, I was making a few changes here and there, and suddenly I knew why that image was there. And then I wrote that and now I think it looks like it was supposed to be like that all along.

Sometimes, as Pooh says, poems get you. Rabbit never understands, but that's okay.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Rrraaarrrrr

That was a dinosaur noise, if you couldn't tell. Me and dinosaurs go way back. Dinosaurs have never let me down, I have to say. In fact, they just go on getting cooler and cooler as the years go by. I mean, they have feathers now, and they run around, and they're even BIGGER than they used to be, and some of them are just totally BIZARRE.

And by BIZARRE, of course, I mean AWESOME.

So one could probably win some easy money that at some point, betting that Corey's going to be involved in an RPG product that involves dinosaurs. Seriously.

And here it is, the:

True20 Prehistoric Bestiary



Packed full of REAL dinosaur-y goodness, even fully illustrated (thank you, WikiCommons) -- True20 statblocks for all the well-known dinosaurs, and a few beasties that aren't so well known.

It's all kind of Joshua's fault. He was complaining that nobody seemed to be using the latest in paleontology to create cool beasties for gaming. He was right, too, and it got me thinking. And me and Joshua thinking in the same channels? That never ends well.

Anyway, the book lists off 25 creatures of all levels, with (as I said) full-colour illos all the way through (only the Dragonfly, Giant, doesn't get a pic), some details on how these beasties are encountered in the DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND campaign setting, and even a "battlemap" of a fun-to-ride-on-and-even-more-fun-to-jump-off howdah that one might find mounted on a triceratops.

Because if you had a triceratops, why WOULDN'T you ride it?