“Shardik, Shardik the Power Of God!”

Monday, September 29th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Shardik-smallMidway through Richard Adams’s doorstop of a book, Shardik (1974), I decided I had stumbled into the world’s longest parable.

Biblical parables are typically quite brief, but Adams pulls toward the opposite shore, reasoning that in thoroughness lies salvation. And why shouldn’t he? That tactic worked like gangbusters in his astounding debut, Watership Down (1972).

Shardik could indeed function as a serviceable doorstop, but to dismiss it out of hand would be a disservice to literature in general, and to fantasy novels in particular. Shardik is a brave, uncompromising examination of how “mere” mortals encounter and deify the exceptional, thus giving rise to portents, omens, prophecies, and ultimately continent-conquering religions.

In the case of Shardik, the talismanic inciting event takes the form of a gigantic bear, a bear of monstrous, prehistoric proportions, and this bear first flees a forest fire and then crashes, half-burned and exhausted, into a far-flung outpost of human civilization, Ortelga. Unfortunately – or not, depending on one’s point of view – the Ortelgans entertain a fervid belief that God’s manifestation on Earth will come in the form of a massive bear.

While Watership Down stayed locked within the heads of its rabbit characters, Shardik spends only a few pages at the outset inside the eponymous bear’s mind, just long enough to convince any alert reader that while Shardik may be a divine instrument, he is very much a bear, no more, no less, and will behave accordingly. After that, the story turns to Kelderek-Plays-With-Children, a hunter of simple tastes who first stumbles upon the injured, recovering bear-god.

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Hearing the Voices of Dead Authors in the Present Tense

Monday, September 15th, 2014 | Posted by Nick Ozment

tolkien lighting pipeThere are a number of citation styles for a variety of fields, but the two biggies are MLA (Modern Language Association) and APA (American Psychological Association). The latter is used in the natural sciences and research fields. The former is used in the humanities — literature, philosophy, visual and performing arts — so it’s the one I grew intimately familiar with while earning my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English Literature and Language.

MLA is also the one I primarily taught my first-year composition students during my nine years as an English instructor (which, in retrospect, was a bit of a disservice to all the kids who were going on to pursue non-humanities degrees). In my defense, it is the style primarily used in high school, so it is the one that most students entering college have some degree of familiarity with — which is strange when you think about it: it’s as if our secondary-school system assumes most students will go on to pursue degrees in theater or English. The way I couched my presentation of MLA went something like this: “Whatever field you go into, you will have to write papers that follow a particular formatting and style guide. It may not be this one — it may be APA or Chicago — but using this one will get you accustomed to using one.”

In recent years, I’ve had to get more familiar with APA because I do a fair amount of copy-editing on the side for education, sociology, and psychology professors who write their chapters and academic papers in APA style. The differences between the styles are myriad — each one, after all, has its own labyrinthine manual of hundreds of rules in small type (with sometimes counter-intuitive indexing — as anyone who has spent wasted minutes vainly searching for the guideline pertaining to this one particular set of circumstances knows). Whatever the differences in details, though, their main purpose is to provide a consistent way for other scholars to easily locate the sources one has cited.

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Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook 5th Edition: Character Options & Rules Overview

Sunday, August 31st, 2014 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

5E Players Handbook CAs previously announced, Dungeons & Dragons has released their new 5th edition D&D Player’s Handbook (Amazon). This is the flagship product of their revamped new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. At a time when every aspect of the gaming industry seems to be going gangbusters, it’s a perfect time for Dungeons & Dragons to relaunch a new version of their rules system. Now that I’ve had the book for a while, I’m ready to give some initial thoughts on the system.

When I earlier reviewed the Starter Set, I mentioned that I wasn’t too fond of 4th edition. Let me clarify that statement a bit in context, because my major problem with 4th edition has a direct bearing on how I view 5th edition. It’s not that I disliked 4th edition, per se, it’s just that I didn’t feel that 4th edition felt like the Dungeons & Dragons game system anymore. If someone had shown up and said, “Hey, I just stumbled upon this brand new RPG system” and shown me a book with the mechanics of 4th edition but without the Dungeons & Dragons branding, I might have been quite impressed. But as a transition from edition 3.5, I saw no reason to give up 3.5 and dive into an entirely new system just to play in the same setting. By contrast, the rules in 3rd edition seemed enough of an improvement over 2nd edition to easily justify the transition.

More importantly, though, I didn’t feel that 4th edition was a good entry-level rules system any longer. A year ago, my aunt approached me about my younger cousin (age 12) wanting to begin playing Dungeons & Dragons. I immediately suggested that I could send him my 3.5 edition manuals. I specifically suggested against trying to learn 4th edition rules, unless the kids he was wanting to play with were already using it.

So allow me to begin my review of the 5th edition Player’s Handbook by being absolutely clear:

If I were to introduce a brand new player to a fantasy roleplaying game today, the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons would be my top choice.

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GenCon 2014 – Part 3: Pathfinder, Pathfinder, and More Pathfinder

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

PathfinderAdvancedClassGuideEvery year, one of the most enjoyable booths to attend at GenCon is the Paizo booth. And I’m certainly not alone in that belief. Last year, the massive rush at Paizo to get copies of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords base set (more on this later) resulted in a line that snaked its away across a massive section of the Exhibit Hall. This year, they had to actually have a line out in the hallway to even be admitted into the booth, to avoid cluttering up the Exhibit Hall itself with all the desperate Pathfinder fans. And there were certainly a lot of great products to inspire a spending frenzy this year.

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game

The flagship product coming from Paizo Publishing is the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Pathfinder always has a ton of great releases coming out on an extremely aggressive schedule – a range of adventure modules, player companion supplements, campaign setting supplements, and so on – but here are some main hardcover rulebooks slated for the next few months that are of particular interest to anyone who plays Pathfinder.

Advanced Class Guide (Amazon, Paizo)

This new book provides details on 10 new hybrid classes, which are designed to meld together traits from two of the core and base classes from previous supplements. For example, the hunter is a hybrid of the ranger and druid, a martial character who is able to channel animal powers and bond more closely with their animal companion, but still wield spells. The bloodrager mixes the combat features of the barbarian with the mystical bloodlines of the sorcerer. The brawler is a fighter who gains several of the unarmed combat benefits of the monk, but without the spiritual aspects.

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GenCon 2014 – Part 1: Boosting the Signal

Sunday, August 17th, 2014 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

ThunderscapeThis year marks my sixth year of attending GenCon to represent Black Gate, and one thing that I always enjoy is finding some more esoteric, outside-the-mainstream games to suggest to people.

I definitely have some solid booths I attend every year — Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, Privateer Press, Cryptozoic, and so on — but those are generally games that people will hear of through normal advertising and marketing channels. If I can shed some light on a game that’s being overlooked or is just starting up, well, that’s the sort of thing that Black Gate was really built to do.

With that in mind, I’m going to start my GenCon coverage by discussing some of the less well-known games and publishers that I came across this year, but which have new and upcoming games that might be of interest. I’ll cover the big guys over the next few days, but I definitely want to get the word out on these as soon as possible.

A lot of these games are so new they aren’t even available for purchase online yet, but I’ll provide information as they become available.

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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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Reading the Entrails

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Lord of the RingsBrowsing about the Internet recently, I stumbled on something that interested me. Several things, actually. Specifically, the results at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database of various Locus audience polls; more specifically, the results of the all-time polls in the fantasy field. I was struck by how some things stayed constant across the years, and how some other things have changed.

Now, it’s important to be wary of making overly-sweeping statements about the fantasy field based on these polls. These are things that can be compared with one another; I don’t know if they can be said to have weight beyond that. But, given that, what can one take away from them?

Let me be precise about what I’m looking at. The polls that interest me are the 1987 poll for best all-time fantasy novel, the 1987 poll for best all-time fantasy novelist, the 1998 poll for best fantasy novel before 1990, the 1998 poll for best all-time fantasy novelist, the 1999 poll for best all-time fantasy author, and the 2012 poll for best fantasy novel of the 20th century (John O’Neill wrote about that last poll for Black Gate). There are also all-time polls for science fiction, and some older polls that just asked the Locus readership for best all-time author or novel without specifying genre; I’m interested in fantasy, though, so that’s what I’m focusing on.

You can see some constants in the rankings of the books, but also movement. Some books and authors fell out of favour, some maintained their positions, and a few new titles emerged over time. So together the lists are potentially a glimpse of how attitudes to the genre developed over the course of twenty-five years among fans.

But even assuming that the poll respondents represent a group relatively knowledgeable about fantasy, do the polls say more about fantasy or more about the Locus readership?

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With Apologies to Dopey

Monday, June 2nd, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

DopeyAbout thirty-five years ago, I met Greg B., which is to say I also met his muscle-bound D&D character, Dopey. I owe both an apology, and since I am nearly thirty-five years late in doing so, it’s high time I got on with it. In public, no less.

Dopey was an amazing fighter. A real head-slamming, sword-wielding, take-no-prisoners dude. Not all that stupid, either. He was the first high-level character I’d ever bumped into, either as a player or as a ref, and so perhaps it was written in the stars that eventually, Greg and Dopey would join me gaming, and for an adventure in which I was the dungeon master.

And what did I do when that happened? I killed Dopey.

I did it deliberately, too, and I even know why, but I shouldn’t have done it. I even sensed I was in the wrong — call it a vague but unshakable apprehension — right in the very moment. That alone should have been enough to stay my hand. It wasn’t. So much for teenage maturity.

If I knew where Greg B. is today, I’d make the apology directly. Instead, and because it’s the best I can do at this point, I’ll post my story here, and perhaps one of you knows Greg and can direct him to this post.

Here’s how it happened.

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Loaded!

Monday, May 19th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

dice Of all the mysteries and temptations packed inside that wondrous cardboard sarcophagus known as the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, none was more hypnotic than that lumpy, ill-made set of five polyhedron dice.

Six-sided diced I knew, of course, but twelve? Eight? To say nothing of that canary-yellow four-sider. How did one even use it? What seemed perfectly obvious by the age of thirteen was a serious stumper at twelve.

And then there was the twenty-sider, a multi-faceted orb the color of sun-bleached PVC pipe (and not all pink, like the one depicted here), its numerical sequence uselessly repeated, 1-10, 1-10. Or, depending on how one read it, 0-9. Either way, how did it function as a twenty?

I believe it was a friend, and not the Basic Set rules, that told me how to solve this twenty-sided conundrum. “Color the die,” that was the advice I got. So I chose red — red for blood, I suppose — and I swiped my mother’s biggest, fattest felt-tip El Marko, and I colored that die, carefully, thoroughly, beginning with the zero that happened to be facing the top at the time. Voila! My first twenty-sided die.

My choice of which side to color proved unexpectedly fortuitous. My die, you see, was loaded.

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Can SF Save the World From Climate Change?

Sunday, May 18th, 2014 | Posted by Garrett Calcaterra

A Canticle for Leibowitz-smallSince its inception in the 19th Century, science fiction has inspired technological innovation and progress, utilizing creativity to prod the minds of scientists and engineers into designing wonders beyond the factories and smokestacks of the Dickensian world. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the godfathers of SF, imagined submarines, airships, rockets, spacecraft, and even atomic energy, and their “science fantasy” stories inspired generations of scientists, inventors and engineers, not to mention countless artists and writers.

In the early 20th Century, the Golden Age of SF helped pioneer many of the modern technologies we now take for granted. Arthur C. Clarke conceptualized the geostationary satellite. Isaac Asimov laid the groundwork for robotics and artificial intelligence. E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen novels inspired the US Navy to create the first naval combat information center. In the early 1980s, at a time when personal computers were still in their infancy, William Gibson imagined cyberspace.

At the same time, SF writers have also warned us about the dangers of our rapidly changing world. Pre-dating Verne and Wells, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a bleak cautionary tale of what can happen when scientists try to alter life itself (a warning that seems more prescient than ever in an age of cloning and GMOs). In response to the Second Industrial Revolution, E.M. Forester wrote the first modern dystopia, The Machine Stops, a short novel that depicts a future race of humans that have become helpless, fat, and slug-like due to their complete reliance on technology.

And then, of course, there are the classic dystopian tales, warning us of the dangers of taking social and political ideologies to their extreme ends: A Brave New World, 1984, Animal Farm, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. Similarly, the post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, penned by Walter M. Miller during the height of the Cold War, warns of the dangers of nuclear proliferation coupled with imperialism.

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