Art of the Genre: Reki Kawahara, Depression, and Sword Art Online

Thursday, August 28th, 2014 | Posted by Scott Taylor

Vol1_Special_Poster compI read an article a while back that very eloquently debated the theory that online games, specifically Massive Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Games [MMORPGS], were the root cause of depression. There were arguments on both sides, of course, but after I was done, I couldn’t help but side against them actually causing the mental disorder.

You see, I live in a world of artists and writers, and that means depression is probably the most prevalent topic [both overtly and covertly] among my fellows every day of the year.  Some cope better than others, some take drugs, and in the extreme, some take their own lives. It is a hard truth, but as I sit and think about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter who you are, you carry depression with you.

Depression is a constant but varied affliction of the human condition, and to those suffering the least, perhaps a nightly sitcom and a bowl of popcorn stave off the stresses of a cubical lived workday. As above, for the worst cases, like Robin Williams last week, the only true escape seems to call for the end of it all on a permanent basis.

As with any Bell Curve, I think the bulk of Americans and their First World Problems (I know Ethiopia, you are currently crying us a river) are in some comfortable (yet stoically miserable) place right in the middle.  This is where online gaming might come into play.

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Vintage Treasures: Big Planet by Jack Vance

Sunday, August 24th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Startling Stories September 1952-small Big Planet Jack Vance Ace-small Big-Planet-Ace-1978-small

I’m embarrassed to admit that I became a Jack Vance fan only late in life. I blame a misspent youth.

I first discovered him through his short fiction — especially “The Dragon Masters” and “The Moon Moth,” two brilliantly imaginative tales of far-off worlds. But I was slow to discover his novels and I’ve spent the last few years trying to catch up.

The one I want to read next is Big Planet, his 1952 novel of a massive but technologically backwards world known simply as Big Planet, settled over the centuries by a host of criminals, malcontents, and outcasts from Earth. Claude Glystra is sent to Big Planet to investigate rumors of a dark plot against Earth, but his ship is sabotaged and crash-lands 40,000 miles from his destination. Glystra and his crewmates must undertake an impossible journey on foot across a dangerous landscape filled with aliens, human colonies isolated for centuries, and the treacherous agents of his enemies.

Big Planet was Vance’s first major SF novel, and it is one of the classic adventure fantasies of the 1950s. It has been reprinted over a dozen times. I have several different paperback editions — and they are, in fact, very different. All I have to do is figure out which one to read.

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Vintage Treasures: Pavane by Keith Roberts

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Pavane Ace Special-small Pavane Berkley-small Pavane Ace-small

I think I first took notice of Keith Roberts’s classic alternate history Pavane because it was part of the famed Ace Science Fiction Special line. The Ace specials, edited by Terry Carr, were a legendary line of (mostly) original paperbacks that included some of the most acclaimed SF and fantasy ever published, such as R. A. Lafferty’s Past Master (1968), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage (1969), John Brunner’s The Traveler in Black (1971), and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Pavane was one of the rare reprints; it first appeared in hardcover in 1968, and the Ace paperback came along a year later, with a cover by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon (above left).

Pavane has been reprinted many, many times in the past four decades — at least 20 times, by my count. Frankly, I’d be surprised if it’s been out of print for more than a year or two over the past forty years. Trust me, that’s evidence of an exceptional book, with the kind of appeal that crosses generations. Berkley put a very purple Richard Powers on their 1976 paperback edition (above, middle), but I think my favorite cover may be Chuck Minichiello’s, for the 1982 Ace reprint (right).

What’s Pavane all about, then? It’s a collection of nine linked short stories, most of them published in the British SF magazine Impulse in 1966. Roberts imagines a complex and well-realized alternate world where England fell to the Spanish Armada in the 16th Century, and the 20th Century sees the all-powerful hegemony of the Church of Rome, which has ruthlessly smothered scientific progress through the terror of the Inquisition. But knowledge cannot be suppressed indefinitely and the world is beginning to inexorably change…

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Art of the Genre: When an Old School Mind Learns How to Play D&D 5th Edition

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014 | Posted by Scott Taylor

5E Players Handbook CI remember when I first played Basic D&D, then the first time I played AD&D, then 2nd Edition AD&D, and finally 3rd Edition D&D right around the turn of the millennia.  By the time 4th Edition came around, I no longer had a regular gaming group and didn’t care to reinvest my time, money, and shelf space in yet another iteration of Dungeons & Dragons.

Still, that didn’t stop me from continuing on with the hobby, from 3.5 to Pathfinder, and finally all the way back to my renewed love of the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons some time around 2010.  When I heard that Wizards of the Coast would be rolling out another edition of D&D in 2014, this one initially referred to as ‘Next’ and now 5th Edition, I wasn’t much into the idea of vesting time in it, but after having skipped over 4th EditionI did feel a need to at least see what the new concepts were about.

Thankfully, I’ve had a chance to first preview the content of the 5th Edition Starter Set box and finally the initial release of both the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook and the first campaign adventure, Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

In today’s Art of the Genre, I’ll be looking over the Player’s Handbook as my well-aged brain tries to grasp what WotC and 175,000 test gamers thought D&D should look like circa 2014.

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Medieval Marvels at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

Reccesvinth's crown from the Guarrazar Hoard. A collection of gold crowns and crosses dating between 621 and 672 AD, these masterpieces of Visigothic art show Late Roman and Byzantine influences. This crown, for example, has a reused Byzantine pectoral cross. It was popular for royalty, clergy, and leading civilians to donate crowns and crosses as votive offerings.

Reccesvinth’s crown from the Guarrazar Hoard. A collection of gold crowns and crosses dating between 621 and 672 AD, these masterpieces of Visigothic art show Late Roman and Byzantine influences. This crown, for example, has a reused Byzantine pectoral cross. It was popular for royalty, clergy, and leading civilians to donate crowns and crosses as votive offerings.

In previous posts, I’ve been exploring the newly renovated Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid. We’ve looked at the museum’s Celtiberian and Roman collections, and now let’s see the museum’s other great collection, that of the medieval period.

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Support The Collectors Book of Virgil Finlay Kickstarter

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Space Police Virgil Finlay-smallI don’t often report on Kickstarter projects. But in this case, I’m making an exception — both due to the quality of the book and the people involved.

Bob Garcia’s American Fantasy Press is publishing The Collectors Book of Virgil Finlay, the first new Virgil Finlay art book in twenty years, featuring art from the extensive collections of Robert Weinberg, Doug Ellis, Glynn Crain, and Robert K. Wiener. The publishers have launched a Kickstarter Campaign to help defray some of the considerable costs in preparing and publishing the book. Here’s Donato Giancola, cover artist for Black Gate 15, on the artist:

Finlay’s dizzying compositions and incredible draftsmanship recall the dense compositions of Renaissance artists Hieronymus Bosch and Albrecht Durer, while at the same time embracing the modern aesthetics of abstraction. His black and white images are ground breaking, unforgettable, and reflective of a genius at play in the world of art.

From 1936-1971, Virgil Finlay illustrated an astounding amount of pulp fiction, including 19 Weird Tales covers and fabulous interior work for Amazing, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Fantastic Novels, Fantastic Universe, Galaxy, IF, and many others. See samples of his work in Bob’s last article for us here, and a few of his covers here, here, and here.

The Collectors Book of Virgil Finlay is scheduled for release at this year’s World Fantasy Convention. It will contain 35 full color paintings, the largest collection of his color work ever assembled in print, plus another 13 pages of additional color work, over 150 pages of black and white artwork, and commentary on the artist by two of the field’s foremost pulp art collectors: Robert Weinberg and Doug Ellis. It is an oversized 9″ x 12″ hardcover, 208 pages.

The Kickstarter campaign is scheduled to end on Virgil Finlay’s Centenary Birthday: July 23, 2014; after just 10 days, the project is already fully funded. Get more information or contribute at the Kickstarter page here.

Vintage Treasures: Stephen E. Fabian’s Ladies & Legends

Thursday, June 26th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Stephen Fabian Ladies and Legends-thumbI brought home two boxes of treasures from the 2014 Windy City Pulp & Paper show in April. I’ve been very happy with my various finds, which included a rich assortment of eye-catching pulps, vintage paperbacks, classic anthologies, and hard-to-find fanzines and magazines. I’ve covered some of the more interesting items here in the past few months.

But I’ve saved the best for the last: a luscious collection of black and white artwork from one of my all-time favorite artists, Stephen E. Fabian.

A few years ago, Scott Taylor asked me to provide my list of nominees for his Top 10 Fantasy Artists of the Past 100 Years and I had Fabian right near the top, along with Wally Wood and Al Williamson. (None of those three made the list. Go figure.)

Stephen Fabian is one of the great craftsmen in all of fantasy. It’s not merely his command of the medium and his consummate technical skill… his art is genuinely beautiful (a characteristic I frequently find lacking with some of his contemporaries). Fabian has an unerring eye for composition, perfectly positioning his knights, mermaids, and grave robbers among moonlit ruins, floating fairy castles, and more imaginative settings.

He’s equally at home with humor, action, and horror, and all are on display in Stephen E. Fabian’s Ladies & Legends. He’s frequently at his best with pen and ink drawings, as he is here. This is a gorgeous book and, like the best fantasy artwork, it will set your imagination soaring.

Warning — some adult content ahead.

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Art of the Genre: The Art of D&D is Not Right for Lankhmar [and Most Other Fiction Settings]

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014 | Posted by Scott Taylor

Lankhmar Cover CompressI, like many folk of my age, category, and interest set, have many fond memories of Waldenbooks. I mean, as a kid there were basically two things you could be guaranteed were fun at any U.S. mall: Kay-Bee Toys and Waldenbooks. They were two oases in a desert of clothes outlets and anchor stores that your mother dragged you to on far too many occasions. Still, being able to go to those two stores somehow made it all worthwhile and I weep for the youth of today (and myself for that matter) that malls have now become all clothing & eateries, as both those wonderful chains are gone forever.

Yet I digress, as I’m writing today to speak a bit about a book I well remember purchasing at Waldenbooks back in probably 1987 (although the book’s production date is 1985). This gaming campaign setting, Lankhmar: City of Adventure, was produced by TSR after it acquired the license to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mouser universe and it does an admirable job detailing the base game mechanics for driving a square peg (Swords & Sorcery) into a round hole (Dungeons & Dragons).

I was too young at the time to properly see this problem and simply enjoyed the game for what it was, another cool setting to have my characters visit (and more importantly steal Nehwon Throwing Daggers, which did 1D6 damage instead of the 1D4 of normal D&D daggers). This was also one of the more interesting cities designed by TSR, in that it is not only huge, but it has a series of square ‘blocks’ that are empty in the map and can be filled in by the DM to customize the city to your personal campaign.

Still, as I look at this large 95-page supplement today, I’m saddened by the thought of what could have been if this kind of development and money had been focused in the right direction. To me, Lankhmar falls well short of the mark because the world of Leiber is inherently NOT D&D, and therefore trying to statistically recreate Fafhrd & Mouser, or anyone or anything else in that universe, is going to fall dramatically short. It is for the same reason that Pete Fenlon developed Rolemaster, and thereafter Middle-Earth Role-playing, because he couldn’t play the world of Tolkien using the table-top mechanics of Gygax’s gaming opus, D&D.

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New Treasures: Planets of Adventure by Murray Leinster

Friday, June 20th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Planets of Adventure-smallThere’s lot of great new arrivals to tell you about this week. I’ve got them all stacked up beside my green chair, unread. Because the book I’m really excited about is Planets of Adventure by Murray Leinster, published by Baen Books over a decade ago.

That’s when I first bought it, too — over a decade ago. I went hunting for a copy as a birthday gift for my son last week, and was thrilled to find it was still in print. A fat omnibus of pulp science fiction from one of my favorite science fiction writers, still in print in mass market after nearly eleven years!

Just like that, my faith in humanity is restored. Here’s the back cover blurb, ’cause it’s awesome.

Breathtaking space adventure by a master of interplanetary science fiction. Including two complete novels, one of them a Hugo Award-winner.

The Planet Explorer: As humans spread throughout the galaxy, thousands of planets have been colonized. Often, the colonists discover too late that an apparently hospitable planet conceals a danger to their survival. The fate of these colonies scattered across the galaxy rests with one man, whose own fate is to race forever against looming interstellar disaster.

The Forgotten Planet: A ship is marooned on a planet whose existence has been mislaid by the galactic bureaucracy. And the planet’s ecology has gone wild, breeding deadly giant insects. The ship’s crew and passengers have no hope of rescue. Can they and their descendants survive? Tune in next millennium.

Plus more exciting adventures of men and women against the hostile stars.

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Vintage Treasures: Weird Tales #290

Monday, June 9th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Weird Tales 290-smallI’m still unpacking all the treasures I brought home from the 2014 Windy City Pulp & Paper show in April. Although, as my wife Alice points out, things would go a little faster if I didn’t fondle everything for 20 minutes.

I found the artifact at right buried in a box of magazines and fanzines from the 70s and 80s I acquired at the show. It’s the 290th issue of Weird Tales, covered dated Spring 1988 — the Sixty-Fifth Anniversary issue, a landmark, and one of my favorite issues of perhaps the most famous fantasy magazine of all time.

Issue 290 was the first issue of Weird Tales from Terminus Publishing, under editors George H. Scithers, John Gregory Betancourt, and Darrell Schweitzer. It’s special to me because the Terminus era was my favorite incarnation of Weird Tales.

I suppose some folks will find that odd. Certainly the early pulp era of the Grand Old Lady of fantasy was its most fertile and famous period — the late 20s to mid-thirties, when it routinely published groundbreaking work by Robert E, Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Edmond Hamilton, and many, many others. Those issue are highly prized by collectors and key copies in good condition from that era routinely command hundreds of dollars.

But the Terminus years, which began in my mid-20s, marked the resurgence of Weird Tales as a vibrant, important and thoroughly modern fantasy magazine, publishing short fiction by the top fantasy writers of the time. It was also the first time I was able to enjoy it as a contemporary publication, rather than a highly collectible relic of a distant era, and I appreciated that very much. I had a subscription, and looked forward to each issue eagerly.

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