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Vintage Treasures: To Here and the Easel by Theodore Sturgeon

Thursday, July 24th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

To Here and the Easel-smallA few weeks ago, I wrote about Theodore Sturgeon’s collection The Stars Are the Styx and complained that virtually all of Sturgeon’s brilliant short story collections had now been out of print for over three decades.

I did this mostly out of bitterness and greed. I’d spent several years happily tracking down all 16 of Sturgeon’s paperback collections — a highly collectible lot — but now, those days were over. I wanted more, but  no more were forthcoming. It’s not like I was going to discover a new Sturgeon collection I’d never heard of or something.

Of course, a few days after I wrote that article, I discovered a new Sturgeon collection I’d never heard of.

It was To Here and the Easel, a gorgeous Panther paperback from 1975, with an eye-catching Peter Jones cover. I discovered it accidentally on eBay and, after gawking at it for several long minutes — and them making sure it wasn’t simply a retitled version of a US collection I already had — I promptly purchased it.

It arrived a few days later and I am thrilled to have it. Here’s the back cover blurb:

Here are all the ingredients for a splendidly varied and entertaining collection of science fiction and science fantasy: a mental parasite which lives in the minds of successive human hosts, forcing them to do its will… the man who ‘reads’ gravestones… a devastating weapon sent from beyond space and time which poses the ultimate threat to an already shaky galactic federation… and more!

With virtuoso skill and brilliance of invention, Theodore Sturgeon displays in this collection the mastery of his field which has won him international acclaim.

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My Fantasia Festival, Day 2: Kite and Open Windows

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

KiteOn Friday night, the cats came out at Fantasia.

They may have been around on Thursday, too, but this was the first I’d heard them this year. It’s one of the traditions that’ve sprung up at Fantasia: some years ago a series of short films called Simon’s Cat fostered an outbreak of meows among the audience (or, for the francophones, miaous). Somehow it spread to the rest of the festival. And then returned the next year. So, now, when the lights go down for a film — but before anything starts playing on the screen — you’ll hear the audience calling out meows. And the occasional ‘woof’ or ‘baa,’ just for variety.

Friday night, I saw two films welcomed by meows. Kite, a bloody near-future sf film, played at 6:35 in the big Hall Theatre, preceded by a short comedy, Raging Balls of Steel Justice. Then I headed downstairs to the D.B. Clarke Theatre to catch a twisty thriller called Open Windows. I don’t think either feature was entirely successful, but both qualified as ‘interesting,’ the latter rather more than the former.

Let’s begin with the short. Steel Justice is a violent, raunchy parody of 80s action movies, done in claymation. A Sledge Hammer!-style supercop and his horny robot sidekick have to save a prominent banker who’s been kidnapped by a barn full of escaped convicts. Much carnage ensues. It’s quick, fluidly animated, and extremely gross. As the saying goes: people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. The humour wasn’t quite to my taste, and it did feel quite a lot like the aforementioned Sledge Hammer! without network content guidelines. For some, that’ll be enough to make it different; as it happens, not for me. At any rate, what it does, it does competently.

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Adventure On Film: Time After Time

Monday, July 21st, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Movie fans will forever remember Malcolm McDowell for his simpering, ultra-violent turn in Aimages Clockwork Orange (1971), but actors aren’t the sort to rest on their laurels, and by 1979, McDowell felt ready to embody a genuine historical figure, H.G. Wells.

The film was Time After Time, not to be confused with the Cyndi Lauper song (or the infinitely better cover by songbird Eva Cassidy), and if there’s a more definitive origin point for the Steampunk movement, I’d like to know what it is.

At the helm is first-time director Nicholas Meyer, who must have a soft spot for science fiction. Only a few years later, and armed with a much heftier budget, he was tapped to captain Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982).

As for Time After Time, it’s far from perfect –– the script contains several gargantuan plot holes, and we viewers (if I may be forgiven the mixed metaphor) must swallow hard to keep up –– but it does work in fits and starts, thanks especially to the looming presence of David Warner as a time-skipping and dangerously prescient Jack the Ripper.

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Sylvia Townsend Warner and Lolly Willowes

Thursday, July 17th, 2014 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Lolly WillowesSylvia Townsend Warner is probably best known in fantasy circles for The Kingdoms of Elfin, her collection of linked short stories from 1977. I’ve been looking for a copy of that book, but have yet to locate one (using the Internet, I firmly feel, is cheating). But I did recently come across her debut novel, 1926’s Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman. It’s been described as a deal-with-the-devil story in which a middle-aged Englishwoman makes a Satanic pact and becomes a witch. That’s accurate, but not necessarily the best description.

It’s a story about an upper-class woman in 1920s England, Laura Willowes, and in wry third-person narration describes the outward details of her life and her search for imaginative freedom. Laura, or ‘Lolly’ to her family, is a vivid character who grows more fascinating as the book goes along. The first third of the book tells us about her childhood and family and how she lived with her father until he died and then moved in with her older brother to help him and his wife look after their children; the second part follows her in her late 40s, when she (seemingly) abruptly chooses to leave her brother’s London home to live on her own in a small town in South East England; the third sees her newfound independence threatened when her loving nephew comes to live in the same small town. At which time she turns to Satan — or thinks she does.

Is it a fantasy? Well, it’s a lovely book, filled not only with a dry and reserved wit, but also fine descriptions of nature and of dreams. It’s a gentle but devastating satire of gender roles, as well as a statement about love and freedom. It’s a leisurely-paced character study in elegant language. And then there’s also some stuff in it about witches and Satan. It’s possible to read it as a realistic novel in which the supernatural is hallucinated, but perhaps easier to read as a fantasy. Still, to say it’s a book ‘about’ witchcraft or Satan is untrue. The fantastic elements come in late and grow out of the mimetic elements. The book is ‘about’ Laura Willowes. Fantasy’s just a part of who she is.

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The Original Bug-Eyed Monster: Astounding Stories, May 1931

Sunday, July 13th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Astounding Stories May 1931-smallPulps are my weakness. I discovered them when I was just 12 years old, in Jacques Sadoul’s marvelous art book 2000 A.D. Illustrations From the Golden Age of Science Fiction Pulps (which I discussed back in May). That book sparked a lifetime interest in pulp magazines, where American science fiction was born.

Of course, I was too young to have purchased or read any pulp magazines myself in 1976. Pulps died out in the 1950s, killed off by wartime paper shortages and changing economics. So I’ve relied on the collector’s market to supply me with magazines — an expensive proposition, especially if you’re a completist.

Over the years, I’ve gotten more discriminating in my collecting. I dearly love Planet Stories, Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder, Unknown, Air Wonder Stories, and many other pulps. But my favorite is Astounding Stories (later Astounding Science Fiction), the magazine which — under legendary editor John W. Campbell — ushered in the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction, discovering Robert A. Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, and many, many others. Campbell became editor with the October 1937 issue and he quickly transformed the entire field. 

Curiously, the most expensive and in-demand issues of Astounding aren’t from Campbell’s reign, however. They’re from its first three years, 1930-1933, the period known as the Clayton Astounding, when it was owned by Clayton Magazines. That’s their symbol, the little blue pennant, in the top right of the cover at left.

Very little fiction from the Clayton period is remembered today — and if you’ve never heard of the Clayton Astounding, you’re not missing much. The magazine’s early editors, like most of the American public, didn’t really understand science fiction and mostly filled the magazine with thinly disguised westerns in space and early space operas. But the covers… ah. They’re a very different story.

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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes – Murder By Decree

Monday, July 7th, 2014 | Posted by Bob Byrne


They also tried to appeal to the James Bond crowd as well

Thanks in large part to Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Per Cent Solution (book and film), Sherlock Holmes had a revival of popularity in the mid seventies. This resulted in an under-appreciated British-Canadian big-screen effort, Murder By Decree.

The most famous detective had tackled the most famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper, in 1965’s A Study in Terror. Originally conceived as a sequel to Christopher Lee’s under-achieving Sherlock Holmes & The Deadly Necklace, John Neville played a solid Holmes, though saddled with Donald Houston’s doofus of a Watson.

A bit lurid, it’s a good Holmes film, though promoted to appeal to Adam West’s very popular ‘Batman’ TV show crowd (“Here comes the original caped crusader”).

The Ripper File was a book based on Jack the Ripper, a BBC miniseries in which two popular TV detectives investigated the Jack the Ripper case. That miniseries introduced Joseph Sickert and his royal conspiracy theory (later turned into Stephen Knight’s book, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution) to the world.

Director and producer Bob Clark (whose next film, improbably, would be Porky’s) built his story around The Ripper File. There are several variations of the royal conspiracy theory and Murder by Decree changes some (but not all) of the names and follows one of them.

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Self-Published Book Review: Destiny’s Heir by Casey Neumiller

Sunday, July 6th, 2014 | Posted by Donald Crankshaw

Destiny's Heir CoverIf you have a book you’d like me to review, please see the submission guidelines here.

Casey Neumiller’s Destiny’s Heir is the first book of a planned epic fantasy series. Like most novels starting off a series, a goodly portion is spent introducing the characters and the world. For centuries, Letale’s kings have ruled with the guidance of the Magi, who both advise the king and, when necessary, combat the servants of the Dark One. But a few decades ago, a new king assassinated the old line and declared the Magi outlaws, flipping the theology by declaring that the Aethir whom the Magi serve is the Dark One and the former Dark One is the Light One. It seems odd how easily most people accept this, but there are enough real world examples of a paradigm shift in belief systems that I don’t consider it too unbelievable.

The story follows two parallel plot lines, that of the Magi apprentice Arraya and that of the thief Ben, alternating between them for each chapter. From Ben’s point of view, this is a heist story. He and his friends, Zeke and Corin, have been asked by the leader of their guild in Jepitsa to assist in stealing one of the most valuable items in the kingdom, the queen’s crown. There is no actual queen, so the crown’s kept in storage, where it can be easily claimed by a clever thief with the right items, which Ben, Zeke, and Corin spend most of the novel attaining.

Corin, however, has some doubts about the guild-leader Allen. She thinks he means to make off with the crown while leaving the rest of them to take the blame, doubts which Ben is unable to put to rest.

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Future Treasures: The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi

Sunday, July 6th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

The Causal Angel-smallTwo years ago, Matthew David Surridge posted a review of The Quantum Thief, the first novel in Hannu Rajaniemi’s far future adventure trilogy. We focus on fantasy at Black Gate, but the magical and baroque setting Rajaniemi created seemed more science fantasy than SF and it caught my attention. Here’s how Matthew summed up the book:

Centuries in the future, Jean le Flambeur is a master thief, imprisoned in a virtual-reality jail: every day he makes choices, and dies, and is reborn. Until he’s freed by a violent woman named Mieli from the edge of the solar system, and taken to Mars. There, he must regain old memories he locked away from all possible recovery when he was literally a far different person than he is now. A youthful detective, hi-tech superheroes, and posthuman intelligences are waiting to complicate his task, which seems to have ramifications on an interplanetary scale…

It’s primarily, I think, within a lineage that goes back at least to Arthur C. Clarke, fusing precise language and dramatic plots with a sense of the sublime clothed in scientific theory… it also plays with another lineage, older than sf, one at least as old as Robin Hood: the righteous outlaw thief.

The second volume, The Fractal Prince, was published in hardcover in November 2012. I just received a copy of the third (and final?) volume: The Causal Angel, which goes on sale next week. The blurb promises this volume contains “the ultimate fates of Jean, his employer Miele, the independently minded ship Perhonnen, and the rest of a fractured and diverse humanity flung throughout the solar system.” Sign me up.

The Causal Angel will be published by Tor Books on July 15th. It is 292 pages, priced at $25.99 in hardcover and $12.99 for the digital edition. The cover is by Kekai Kotaki.

The Magic Gets Measured

Friday, July 4th, 2014 | Posted by Violette Malan

Wolfe KnightIn a recent Facebook posting, horror writer Jason S. Ridler had this to say about the kind of magic he prefers in fantasy novels:

If it’s not attached to emotions and mythical forces, I don’t care. Complex magic systems that are just science by another name, with lots of rules, and comparable to other magic systems with more rules, and don’t have elements of mystery , or the bizarre or the sublime… don’t interest me… I like my magic attached to the  unknown and the mysterious, not the quantifiable.

For me, this reopened the discussion we often see here in Black Gate on magic as it’s used in Fantasy.

I haven’t had a chance to have this discussion with Ridler himself – since he’s in California now, and I’m still in Ontario, we no longer meet regularly for afternoons in the pub – so I don’t know which works in particular make which of his lists, but I’d have to say that the type of magic system he dislikes is the more prevalent one. Which probably explains why he’s not a mad-keen fantasy reader.

Not that there aren’t plenty of examples of the kind he does like. LOTR immediately comes to mind; as does Roger Zelazny’s early Amber novels, though I think his Dilvish the Damned stories might come closer. Slightly more up-to-date examples might include Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series or Gene Wolfe’s Wizard/Knight.

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True North

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014 | Posted by James Maliszewski

cns77The hobby of tabletop roleplaying games was born in the American Midwest, but very quickly spread beyond the wargames clubs of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Forty years after the publication of Dungeons & Dragons, RPGs are played and enjoyed throughout the world. Many countries outside the United States can rightly boast of their own roleplaying games and designers, some of which, such as Britain’s Warhammer games, have arguably proved as influential as D&D. Since today is Canada Day, I thought it fitting to post a short tribute to two Canadian roleplaying game designers whose work, while perhaps not as widely known as that of Arneson and Gygax, is nevertheless worthy of note, particularly by those of us who have come to appreciate and indeed prefer what has come to be called “old school” gaming.

As everyone interested in such things knows by now, Dungeons & Dragons first appeared in 1974. The originality of its concept inspired others to create similar games of their own, the first being Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls, published in 1975. Many more followed, including Chivalry & Sorcery, written by two wargamers at the University of Alberta, Edward E. Simbalist and Wilfried K. Backhaus. C&S was published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1977 and owes its existence to some questions Simbalist and Backhaus asked after playing D&D, as they explain at the start of the rulebook:

Chivalry & Sorcery began innocently enough with a discussion about the vacuum that our characters seemed to be living in between dungeon and wilderness campaigns. In the Fantasy Wargames Society of the University of Alberta a degree of dissatisfaction emerged over the limited goals that were available to our characters. The solution was to develop an all-encompassing campaign game in which dungeon and wilderness adventures were just a small part of the action.

Initially called Chevalier, Simbalist admitted in an interview that Chivalry & Sorcery was “a D&D clone in some respects.” The pair even intended to pitch the game to TSR for publication, but chose instead to work with FGU. Chevalier “contain[ed] all of the seeds that would soon spring forth as Chivalry & Sorcery,” which Simbalist believed was “a dramatic departure from the slash and hack approach to RPG that existed in those early days.”

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