Public Opinion In the Age of Fractured Culture

Friday, August 14th, 2009 | Posted by Bill Ward

broken_glassThis is a direct follow up to James Enge’s post yesterday, Metabloggery. Being completely devoid of ideas as to what to write about here this week — the previously fertile blog fields of my mind having been trampled by a Diplodicus — I thought I’d just jump on in and add my own spin on what James is talking about (which, of course, you’ve already read). In some way, my lack of a ready topic only proves we writers shouldn’t be fooling around with blogs — after all, I spent most of my free time this week writing fiction, of all things.

But James is right about the potential for trouble that arises when writers pick up the e-pen and scribble without any sort of editorial check or, quite often, without even taking a deep breath and counting to ten. Thus far, I’ve been lucky to avoid getting the dog doo of web embarrassment all over my new trainers — but only because I’m pretty strictly averse to talking politics, religion, or current affairs online (especially on my blog). Call it cowardice, or call it forbearance, but honestly I think it’s mostly just laziness. I mean, if I’m going to get into a long, drawn-out argument and be forced to commit to one side or another, let it be about something important, like Early vs. Late Heinlein, or the virtue of Conan pastiches, or whether the Dune sequels are worth reading.

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GenCon 2009 Report #2 … and Free Epic Fantasy Fiction!

Thursday, August 13th, 2009 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

The first day of GenCon is over and done with. I’ve made it along one and a half walls of the dealer’s room, a massive space in the center of the Indianapolis Convention Center. I seriously believe that the dealer’s room is about the equivalent of half a city block in size, all of it open and full of vendor booths. For those who have never been, GenCon is the major event of the gaming industry, with vendors representing game developers of all stripes – role-playing games, card games (classic, collectible, tradable, etc.), electronic/video games, board games, dice and gaming supply companies – as well as authors, artists, musicians, media personalities, and so on.

For our purposes, of course, the interest is on the adventure fantasy folks, and they are out in abundance this year. I’ve already spoken a bit about the Catalyst Games people and their Shadowrun and CthuluTech lines. Another of my favorite settings is Privateer Press’s Iron Kingdoms, which I’ve reviewed previously in the pages of Black Gate (see issues 10 & 12). With the switch to new fourth edition rules for Dungeons & Dragons, the Iron Kingdoms steam & sorcery line (which is based on the d20 system utilized in 3.5) has been mostly on hold, except for supplements provided regularly in the Privateer Press magazine, No Quarter. I was told that there are plans on the drawing board to continue this line, possibly with a proprietary mechanics system. It sounds like this is very much in the preliminary phases, though, so don’t hold your breath. For now, the only new Iron Kingdoms setting or RPG material that looks like it’s on the horizon will be through No Quarter.


Speaking of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, it lives on in the form of Pathfinder from Paizo Publishing, this game represents an “evolution of the 3.5 rules set of the world’s oldest fantasy roleplaying game.” This monster rulebook is a brilliant marketing tactic, giving those who dislike D&D 4th edition something to spend their money on so that they can keep playing in the system they grew to love. I’ve personally not played with the 4th edition rules, but I really liked 3.5 and have heard negative things about 4th, so am pleased to see the 3.5 rules system is alive and well in some form, at least.


On to Hollow Earth Expedition, a game from Exile Game Studio that was reviewed in Black Gate issue 12. Hollow Earth utilizes their own proprietary rule system, the Ubiquity Roleplaying SystemTM – which “emphasizes storytelling and cinematic action” (according to their website). The rules are easy to follow, as you play a pulp hero who is performing a Jules Verne-style exploration of the center of the Earth, which contains Nazis, dinosaurs, native peoples, and other strange monsters. In fact, the system is adaptable to a variety of pulp scenarios, with a recent sourcebook, Secrets of the Surface World, allowing for adventures that take place entirely on the surface as well, with mad scientists and secret societies right out of the pages of the pulp magazines. A forthcoming supplement will add to the possibilities by presenting Mars as a campaign setting, allowing for planetary romance genre adventures as well.


The Ubiquity Roleplaying SystemTM is also being utilized by Greymalkin Designs, LLC’s game Desolation, a post-apocalyptic setting … except that the world that’s been apocalypsed is a traditional high-fantasy world, complete with magical races, powerful sorcerers, and mystical artifacts. The apocalypse took the form of a “Night of Fire” which killed 90% of the population, followed by “The Long Winter” during which many others perished. You play one of survivors and hopes to continue surviving. (The first supplement, which adds new orcs, goblins, and kobolds as player races, along with other additions, is in fact called Desolation: Survivors.) Not only are magic users now scorned because of the belief they caused the cataclysm, mystical energies have become so disrupted that magic itself does not work right, and errors in casting spells result in physical damage manifesting back on the magic user. The series’ tagline “High Fantasy, Brought Low” certainly seems appropriate … and inviting.


Finally, since this is a magazine of fantasy literature, I figure it would be nice to direct everyone to some free reading material, courtesy of new author Maxwell Alexander Drake. He’s been able to get a publisher to agree to start him out with an astounding 6 book epic fantasy series called the Genesis of Oblivion saga, and the first volume, Farmers and Mercenaries, is now available. Drake is so confident of his abilities that he’s offering the first four chapters of the book for free online (you don’t have to sign up for his mailing list to get the free sample). I’ve read the first few pages and, while I can’t say I’m hooked quite yet, I’m interested enough to keep reading the full sample and see if it hooks me. Book two, Siblings and Rivals, looks like it’s due to be out early next summer.


Thursday, August 13th, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

For writers, blogging is almost certainly a mistake. (For “blogging” substitute almost any kind of social networking common nowadays.) Writers make worlds out of the stuff in their heads; they can’t be wasting it on blog-posts (at least, if they think they’re going to run out of words). Further, though it may be very amusing to describe the life-and-death battle that recently occurred between your cat and a shoelace, at least to you and your cat (and housecats are a significant portion of the audience for the average blog, a fact I can prove with science-based assertions upon presentation of a relevant court order), still: if you run your mouth endlessly in public, sooner or later you will say something you wish you hadn’t. In my case, it usually involves tangled parentheses of some kind, but with regular people it can sometimes be quite serious.

Plus, saying stupid stuff is relatively harmless compared to blogging stupid stuff. Suppose someone says something stupid in your presence. Later on, you’re talking to a mutual acquaintance, i.e. me, and you say, “You’ll never believe what Whatshisname said.” (You have better things to do with your time, certainly, but bear with me here; it’s just a thought experiment.) And I don’t believe you. I say something like, “Oh, I know Whatshisname and he’d never say that. Are you sure he wasn’t being ironic?” Maddening. Someone has to do something about this irony stuff. Anyway, that’s the way it might play out in conversation. But if what’s in question is an injudicious blog-post, a convenient link will slay the Ganondorf of disbelief. That’s tough on old Whatshisname, since we won’t be buying his stupid books anymore.

So: blogging. Bad for writers, possibly.

Good for readers, though. It’s a tremendous benefit to potential readers of a book to find out that its author is a porcinely gross, foul-mouthed, bloviating bag of toothless malice squirting flatulent saliva-streaked jets of verbal poison into the eyes of any innocent web-wanderer who happens upon his blog. If they like that sort of thing, then they can support it by buying Whatshisname’s books–and if not, then not.

So, in addition to the “Blog Against Blogging Week” to save writers from themselves (which has occasionally been proposed), I counter-propose a “Blog Against ‘Blog Against Blogging Week’ Week” to save readers from writers. Eventually, everyone will be saved from everybody else, and what a relief that will be.

Gen Con 2009 Report #1

Thursday, August 13th, 2009 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

Welcome to the Black Gate GenCon report. My wife and I knew we were entering the looking glass when, on the walk from our parking lot to the Indianapolis Convention Center, we saw a Crusader, 2 Ghostbusters, and guy (or gal) in a white wolf costume … and, oh yes, the women in corsets. Upon our arrival at 9:30 am, the line wrapped around the block, but fortunately we didn’t have to stand in it. For us, it was straight to the Press Room and, within minutes, we were ready to Con.

This is my fourth GenCon and I’m probably close to the double digits on conventions in general, so it’s not an unfamiliar sight to me. My wife, on the other hand, still lives in … well, maybe not fear, but at least mild anxiety. There is a limit to the amount of furriness she can handle in a person, and it comes just shy of white wolf costumes on a sunny summer day.

Fortunately, GenCon has a track of activities “for the better half” – gaming widows and widowers who are dragged along to these events. One of today’s “better half” events – create your own critter. Unfortunately, we arrived a bit late for that activity, so we will leave the event critter-less. We did, however, see this beautiful rendition of the Magic: The Gathering card “Serra Angel,” but they wouldn’t let us take it with us.


I’m a big fan of the writing seminars , but once we got through our first one (on pitching to game companies) we went into the dealer’s room. Right off the bat, we come into the Catalyst Games booth. There, the kind exhibitors inform me that it’s the twentieth anniversary of Shadowrun … a game which indirectly led me into meeting my wife, so I’m a big fan.

As part of the twentieth anniversary, Catalyst has released a Seattle city guide, Shadowrun: Seattle 2072. The book is slick, to say the least, filled with superb full color illustrations. They’ve also released a full color version of the Shadowrun 4th Edition: Core Rulebook in honor of the twentieth anniversary. The rules are still 4th edition, but if you like books with great full color illustrations, this would be a good volume to add to your collection even if you already have this edition.

Their release at the convention is an adventure module, Dusk: Dawn of the Artifacts I, which is the first in four short adventure modules that will quickly get you into the action of the game, as you search for lost mystical artifacts. The developer anticipates a new module every couple of months, followed about three months later by a fifth book, this one a full campaign book … so that’ll probably be out in about May 2010 or so, if the math comes out right.

I also learned about Catalyst Games’ CthuluTech game, a future Lovecraftian dystopian game, where the secret to unlimited energy has triggered the attention of Cthulu-style dark gods. The developer treats it very much like an “open source” concept, because he’s providing a basic structure that can be utilized in a massive number of different ways, from a mercenary-style military campaign to a more traditional Chthulu occult investigator style … or you can load up a demonic being with battletech and jack in to run it directly through neural link.

So that’s my first report, folks … on to the next booth.

My Favorite Robert E. Howard story: “Pigeons from Hell”

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

pigeon-from-hellWhen other genre-lovers find out I’m a fan of Robert E. Howard, they often ask me what my favorite of his stories is. They probably expect I’ll name one of the Conan yarns, or perhaps a Solomon Kane or Kull story. (Kull is, indeed, my favorite Howard character.) If they already know something of my background in history, they may think I’ll name one of the Crusader stories that appeared in Magic Carpet Magazine.

But instead I say, without hesitation, “Pigeons from Hell.” And, after an inevitable moment of surprise, they always answer back: “Oh, that’s a great story! I had almost forgotten about that one!”

The irony of my love for “Pigeons from Hell” isn’t lost on me: I praise Howard for his foundational contribution to sword-and-sorcery and historical action tales, and yet my personal favorite story he wrote is a contemporary America-set horror story. But “Pigeons from Hell” is quintessentially Robert E. Howard from first word to last; Howard was an author who knew how to transform naturalism into the “weird tale,” and who also took great inspiration from the folklore of his small world of rural central Texas.

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How we live today

Saturday, August 8th, 2009 | Posted by Soyka

I’m old enough  to remember when the first heart transplant caused a flurry of debate on the ethics of harvesting organs, even from people certifiably brain dead (not including most politicians, television newscasters  and reality show celebrities), as perhaps a violation of natural, if not God’s law.  Of course, they used to say the same thing about blood transfusions, though even in the 21st century certain religious beliefs view this as impermissable, though in the decided minority and, in one recent case, prayer in lieu of medical intervention has been ruled criminal negligence, thank god. These days, scheduling a heart transplant or most any other organ swipe out with a biological or mechanical replacement is almost like taking your car to Jiffy Lube for an oil change.  (Needless to say, I exaggerate, as an oil change is much less costly and doesn’t involve third party payers.)  Times change. When I was a kid, notions of “post-humans” with biological enhancements and AI feeds were the stuff of science fiction.  Today, they are the subject of articles such as You: The Updated Owner’s Manual in the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

Speaking of The New York Times, the magazine recently profiled Jack Vance, whose name I’ve seen but never read, something I now intend to fix post-haste.

Getting It Right — and Wrong — on Film

Friday, August 7th, 2009 | Posted by Bill Ward

braveheartThe film spares no trick in getting the celebratory atmosphere just so — for the court is alive with news that an entire treasure fleet of the hated Spaniards has been captured, the funds diverted to her majesty’s treasury, the ships scuttled or pressed into privateering service for the Crown. Elizabeth herself blushes in anticipation of receiving the hero of the hour, the man whose name is on every tongue (and has been for quite some time, truth be told), Vice Admiral Sir Francis Drake. The tension builds, the courtiers grow restless, the lavish entertainments are ignored. All necks stretch, even the alabaster column of the monarch’s herself, when the herald announces the great man’s arrival and the doors swing open.

Francis Drake strides confidently forward in ripped jeans, bowling t-shirt, and backwards pointing baseball cap.

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Brass Tak: Stargate by Stephen Robinett

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

I had been reading science fiction for four or five years before I actually ran across any of the science fiction magazines. I was aware that they existed, and was extremely interested in reading them, but never saw them in bookstores. I now attribute this to the fact that bookstores generally put genre magazines with the magazines and not with the books (where I had been looking for them), and also to the fact that I wasn’t super-bright.

Anyway, when I finally found the magazines, I was a little disappointed. The first one I bought, which is still around the house somewhere, was the F&SF for December 1973. It had an adventure novelet (sic) by Jack Williamson and a more literary piece by a new-to-me author named James Tiptree jr.– “The Women Men Don’t See” was the more-ironic-than-I-knew title. Other stories included an entertaining Shelley-esque pastiche by Gary Jennings, and Richard Lupoff’s “12:01 P.M.”, which still seems to me the most nightmarish horror story I’ve ever read. Then there were the features: a snarky film review by Baird Searles, a science article by my then-hero Isaac Asimov and a cartoon by someone named Gahan Wilson, surely one of the greatest Wilsons of this or any other age. So any complaints I had were not about content. No, it was just that the thing was so cheaply made: the coarse brownish paper on which it was printed was particularly off-putting; the digest size seemed strange–neither booklike nor magaziney. I bought it, read it, enjoyed it, kept it, soon was a subscriber to the magazine, but I was dissatisfied. It didn’t match the shining Platonic ideal I’d somehow formed of genre magazines. Now I know I was looking for something like the luminously maculate pages of Black Gate, but back then all I knew was that there was a painful gap between the real and the ideal, a lesson I’ve been forgetting and relearning ever since.

[More voyages in shelf-discovery beyond the jump.]

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Hercules vs. the Giant Robots

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

herculesposter1983Hercules (1983)

Directed by Luigi Cozzi (as Lewis Coates). Starring Lou Ferrigno, Sybil Danning, William Berger, Brad Harris, Ingrid Anderson.

Last week I reviewed a silly Conan pastiche novel. Today, I offer a sequel of sorts: a review of a very silly Hercules movie. The 1983 Hercules, sporting former mean, green, grunting machine Lou “Hulk” Ferrigno and the best special effects the Italian film industry can sort of buy, is one of the grandly awful pieces of entertaining oddness ever to come from a Roman studio. And Rome has given us some odd stuff. Aside from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health, of course.

I encountered this Hercules when I was eleven years old. I adored Greek mythology since I was in second grade and was well-read in the topic, for which I can thank Clash of the Titans for the initial push. One Friday night, a friend and I watched Hercules when it premiered on cable. It sounded like a sure-winner for kids still not old enough to go out on weekend nights: Greek mythology, monsters, and that guy who played the Hulk. (Plus girls in skimpy outfits, but at eleven we weren’t willing to admit that was already a motivation.)

I’m not certain what I expected from Hercules back then, but it certainly wasn’t what I ended up getting. I had this strange illusion, which only an eleven-year-old can sustain, that a mystical law forced filmmakers to adhere to their source material as closely as they could. When I saw this oddball Hercules film on television, my young boy’s illusions died forever. Which is safer for my sanity, although I still feel the pains from the American Godzilla and Jan de Bont’s 1999 demolishing of The Haunting [of Hill House]. The 1983 Hercules has only the most tenuous connection to Greek mythology, and appears like a mishmash of tiny bits and pieces of Hellenic legendary in a goopy stew of trendy science-fiction clichés from the SF-explosion of the late-‘70s. Welcome to Battlestar Hercules. Or perhaps Krull is the most appropriate comparison.

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Hero Hauls Water; No Time For Mystic Quest

Saturday, August 1st, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

I am sitting at the moment on a beach watching dawn brighten over the mountains in the east, without another human or (barely) anything built by same in sight. There is no electricity here, no landline or cell phone service, nothing that we didn’t bring in ourselves. (And since a 100-year-old alder tree came down in recent weeks near the turnoff from the main (one-lane, gravel) road, we had to hump everything we brought in a fair ways.) Tiny fish are feeding out on the nearly glass-smooth ocean, looking like raindrops, a couple of otters are arguing and splashing on the little islend across the way. A woodpecker has waked up and is rattling in the forest behind me. It’s so quiet I can hear a seagull complaining on a reef two miles away.

A great deal of fantasy takes place in non-technological settings very different from those most who write and consume it live in. I’ve been spending a part of every summer since I was 8 or 9 on this beach, and it serves as a reference when I read or write such fantasy. One thing that is on my mind at the moment is how much work simple things require. Getting a drink of water, for example…. Read More »

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