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Author: M Harold Page

Swordsman. Father. Writer.
Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds #3: Tricks of the Trade and Reflections

Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds #3: Tricks of the Trade and Reflections

I’m doing a deep dive into Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds (first article), and I’ve finally gotten to his last chapter in which he gives advice to writers:

When a writer first begins evolving in his imagination and his notebooks, the raw materials that he intends to shape into an imaginary world, he should think through the problem through to its logical ramifications.

Because…

…despite the convictions of occultists and the religiosi of the several faiths, in the actual world magic simply does not work… and an invented world, therefore, that includes the super natural element must be–has to be–very different from his own. Any writer…. should think through all its implications.

If you’ve just tuned in, Lin Carter was a Fantasy author and editor who flourished roughly from the 50s to the 70s. He was a far better editor than author, however his stories are reliable comfort reads, and compensate for lack of depth with fast pacing and unconstrained imagination. No surprise, then, that his thoughts  on Fantasy worlds are worth reading. He gives them in X entertaining secions.

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Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds #2 World Building and Naming

Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds #2 World Building and Naming

Imaginary Worlds (Ballantine Books, June 1973). Cover by Gervasio Gallardo

So I had great fun reading Carter’s snarky, anecdotal, history of the Fantasy genre, Imaginary Worlds (1973), but I had actually come to the book for his thoughts on writing the Fantasy, and in particular Sword and Sorcery.

In hindsight, perhaps this was more of by way of exorcism.

Carter was adamant that Sword and Sorcery should have no content whatsoever: “It is a tradition that aspires to do little more than entertain and stretch the imagination a little.

We can certainly agree that Sword and Sorcery doesn’t handle topical themes well. The clue is in the name.  Though I myself know many people with swords on their wall and grimoires on their shelves, I will admit that I am not entirely typical in this regard. The secondary worlds of the Sacred Genre are too far removed from modernity to explore it directly.

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Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds #1 History of Fantasy

Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds #1 History of Fantasy

Imaginary Worlds (Ballantine Books, June 1973). Cover by Gervasio Gallardo

I’m the age Proust was when he died, and Lin Carter books are my Madeleine cake.

The covers transport me to the sunny afternoon garage sales of my teens. Picking up one — they’re tiny compared to today’s paperbacks — and riffling the yellowing pages, and I’m thirteen years old, on a hill-walking holiday in Wales, rummaging in a small town charity shop while the rain rattles the dirty glass window. And later, playing Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D was my edition!) in a stuffy teenage bedroom in a Victorian house where the hundred-year-old window slammed down and nearly took off the DM’s leg as he was smoking a roll-up while perched on the ledge…

And like the D&D games of my mid teens, Lin Carter’s books never quite lived up to the potential of the promised exoticism. In our case, we were teenagers with limited life experience. We did very well, as far as it went, and our DMs were patient and I argued too much. Lin Carter, several times married, a Korean war veteran — the Vietnam sequence that kicks off the Callisto books reads very authentically —  cosmopolitan New Yorker, experienced editor, has less excuse.

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A First Look At The Sword of Cepheus for (cough) Travelers in Sword and Sorcery Realms

A First Look At The Sword of Cepheus for (cough) Travelers in Sword and Sorcery Realms

Art: Stephanie McAlea

I don’t like complexity in my tabletop-roleplaying games. It’s not just my age, I’m also more interested in the adventure than the stacking the of feats and traits. And, as a GM, frankly, the chaotic exploding synergies of games like Dungeons and Dragons make me feel panicky.

However, I don’t like it when glossing over resource management breaks genre conventions — if torches can’t run out, if food isn’t scarce, then players will turn each dungeon adventure into weaponized archaeology.

Unfortunately, I’m also — on reflection — unkeen on randomized emulations that  take away the possibilities and drama created by choice: “Oh, you rolled a ‘1’. Whoops your arrows ran out.” (Some games square this circle a little.)

That’s why I was excited when Omer Golan-Joel announced he was working on a Sword and Sorcery game called (drum roll) Sword of Cepheus: 2D6 Sword and Sorcery Roleplaying.

The Cepheus Engine is the flagship for a movement of indy 2D6 games, all under an Open Gaming License related to a certain classic SF game. 2D6 games are generally old-school emulators, with encumbrances and resource management. However, unlike D20 OSR stuff, they have recursive rules — the clue is in the “2D6” — and skill lists rather than classes, meaning you don’t have lots of bolt-on background abilities and feats, because your skill list is your background and distinctive range of capabilities. Normally, character generation is a mini-game in itself. You navigate a career, with one eye on the possibility of aging badly — chicken versus the Grim Reaper — also generating your own backstory as you go.  It’s not so good for big sweeping stuff, but perfect for adventurers having adventures.

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Why I Read Old Science Fiction Stories? (Spoiler: For Entertainment)

Why I Read Old Science Fiction Stories? (Spoiler: For Entertainment)

dumarest-6
“Written by authors who mostly died before we were born”

What is wrong with us?

A gazillion SF&F books get published every month, and here we are reading books written by people who mostly died before we were born. And this is Science Fiction we’re talking about! Surely that’s the genre that riffs off the present to paint a plausible future, or at least an illuminating one? Why are we still reading the old stuff?

Is it because we’re wedded to some idea of “canon”? Probably not.

Sure, it’s interesting to visit the roots of a genre, but most of us want to be also entertained in our scarce leisure time. It’s why people who like theatre come back to Shakespeare for pleasure, but mostly approach Jonson and Marlow out of intellectual interest, and why I still dip into Malory’s pulpy Le Morte De Arthur, but not the ploddy Vulgate Cycle by some Medieval French guy(s?) I forget.

Similarly, aspiring authors are well-advised to see how their predecessors managed the… choreography of certain kinds of story: there’s no point in reinventing the wheel when past generations have left so many tried and tested examples just lying around. However, that presupposes that those wheels were proven in action, that they carried along stories that were entertaining.

And, yes, given how wide the field is, we’re more likely to find common ground talking about CL Moore than China Mieville: the best place to catch your mates is outside the pub, not in its murky depths. Even so, we want to be able to rant about books we loved and why… books that we found entertaining.

And there’s that word again: entertaining.

What does the old stuff have that the new doesn’t? After all, modern SF comes in meaty tomes of 100K words, generally has plausible extrapolation, and often takes us out of our comfort zone. How can 30K of often lightly characterized and emotionally distant narrative with not much contemporary significance compete with that?

Except, that’s the point,  I think.

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A (Belated) First Look At Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game.

A (Belated) First Look At Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game.

Bronze Golem by Luigi artikid Castellani
Bronze Golem by Luigi artikid Castellani

Cover
“A rules-light game system modeled on the classic RPG rules of the early 1980’s”

I just purchased a copy of the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game, “a rules-light game system modelled on the classic RPG rules of the early 1980’s”, which is code for an Old School Revival (OSR) game based on the old D&D mechanics that Wizards of the Coast released under open license some twenty(!) or so years ago.

The thing about OSR games is you never quite know whether they are reviving the experience or just the rules of yesteryear’s roleplaying. The two are different because the world has changed.

Sure, the rules generate the experience, but the same way music generates the gig. This isn’t the sound of one hand clapping in the woods. The context matters. Just as Bill Haley and the Comets wouldn’t trigger a cinema (!) riot these days, the uneven rules of yesteryear aren’t going to conjure up the edge-of-seat experience of our youthful roleplaying, because things have changed.

I’m old enough to have played 1st Edition AD&D as a teenager, just at the point when the supplements were stacking up to obscure the original mechanical simplicity. I yearn for the cosy shared world  — the Vancian magic, the stock monsters and magical items, the delightful abstraction of character classes — but have no nostalgia for epicycle-heavy non-recursive mechanics — ascending armor class, anybody? — nor the nerdily statted list of polearms, nor the tribble-like burgeoning of scene-stealing new character classes. Luckily, we were fortunate enough to have an adept DM (Hello Andy, Calum!) who could act as a layer between the mechanics and the flaky teens (Sorry, Andy, Calum…). Nor have I any interest in revisiting old controversies — Wot? No thief?

And this is the first way that the world has changed: standards.

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Review: Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past by Jeb J Card.

Review: Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past by Jeb J Card.

From Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past by Jeb Card. Copyright © 2018 University of New Mexico Press, 2018.
“Probably the last book you’ll need to buy on the subject of Alternative Archaeology”

Funny story about Mayan gifs glyphs.

Public Domain (Wikipedia)
Monumentally screwed-up Mayan Rosetta Stone

Before the 1860s, Mayan glyphs were an untranslated Rorschach Test for those who wanted to find lost worlds — spiritual or physical — in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica: “Weird swirly writing style, therefore Egyptians from Atlantis who understood the Secrets of the Universe.”

Then Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg discovered a 16th-century document in a Spanish archive. It seems Spanish government officials were presumed corrupt until proven otherwise, so had to lodge a defence of their actions in office. For some reason, Diego de Landa, Archbishop of Yucatan included a bilingual alphabet in his.

The Mayan Rossetta Stone!

Brasseur rushed off to translate the Madrid Codex — a compilation of Mayan writings that had somehow survived the bonfires of the Inquisition.

Unfortunately, he didn’t realise that the Archbishop had monumentally screwed up, presumably because he was doing the Western thing of TALKING VERY LOUDLY TO THE NATIVES.

So when he said, “How do you write H?” he got back the Mayan for glyphs for… yes, you’ve guessed it, “Ah-che”. We can guess that “K” would have come back as “K-Ay” and so on. This just like in Terry Pratchett’s The Color of Magic where the places are all called things like “Big Tree” and “Your Finger You Fool,” and in Bonny Scotland where the government maps have a superfluity of “Black Lakes.”

De Brasseur heroically wrung a translation out of the Codex and was delighted to find evidence for the fiery destruction of Atlantis and the diffusion of high culture to the Americas from the West: this was a scholar whose mindscape was populated by Phoenicians in Brazil, Mayas at the Temple of Solomon, hidden meanings in colonial documents, and establishment conspiracies to cover up the quality (!) of pre-Hispanic craftsmanship.

Erk.

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Worldbuilding Once and Future Fake News: Not Really A Review of Singer & Brooking’s LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media

Worldbuilding Once and Future Fake News: Not Really A Review of Singer & Brooking’s LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media

LikeWar
(Not about the Sack of Limoges, or the Hundred Years War)

conversation-with-smaug-recoloured - 300 dpi
Worldbuilders!

What if I told you that the Sack of Limoges in Froissart… never happened?

Well, OK, you’d look at me blankly. After a moment you might ask, “I’ve never heard of Froissart. Where is that? French Canada?”

I’ve been reading LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by Singer and Brooking. It describes the emerging world of Internet “news” where news passes from person-to-person on social media, no source is uncontroversially trustworthy, and where both information warriors and click-bait farmers are uninterested in the truth, except as a way of making untruths more plausible.

In this world, what determines a narrative’s success is not veracity but rather: Simplicity; Resonance; and Novelty.

Just switch the arena to “rumor” and this looks awfully like a greatly accelerated version of the pre-modern — especially Medieval and Renaissance — milieus we use as inspiration for Fantasy worldbuilding.  Keep the rumor but return the tech, and it’s also a good jumping-off point for building a Space Opera future. Stay with me and I’ll explain. But first, back to the smoking ruins of Limoges.

The authors — Singer wrote a great book on robot warfare, by the way — talk about a US military training scenario that would make a good Traveller adventure: insurgents set up both a demonstration and an ambush, guaranteeing the former will get caught in the latter, the objective being to generate Internet images of an occupier-perpetrated massacre. The military response — as I recall; the index isn’t very good — is to contain or avoid the ambush. Singer and Brooking remark that this won’t do any good. The insurgents — if cynical enough — can just shoot the civilians anyway and blame the occupiers, or simply upload images from elsewhere.

And that’s what made me think of Froissart and Limoges.

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Cheat Endings As Bad As Deus Ex Machina

Cheat Endings As Bad As Deus Ex Machina

Deus... Ex Machina...!
We still make like confused crusaders and cry “Deus Ex!” because it’s a cheat ending

Deus Ex Machina endings are so despised that people still use the Roman term from thousands of years ago, itself a translation from the older Greek, “God Out of the Machine”.

For those who’ve just tuned in to plot geekery and tropes: Imagine a Greek play, everybody in masks under a Mediterranean blue sky. The Furies are rejoicing, the hero is trapped by his enemies, the dilemmas are unsolvable and — WHOOSH! — a crane or a trapdoor-elevator — yes, a machine — literally plonks Apollo onto the stage and He — boringly — fixes everything.

These days, the Deus Ex Machin need not be a god — it can be the king, an airstrike, friendly aliens, whatever. We still make like confused crusaders and cry “Deus Ex!” because it’s a cheat ending: unearned victory or salvation is boring, and dodges the questions raised by the story.

However, Deus Ex Machina is not the only cheat ending. It has mutant cousins that often get a free pass because they ramp up the drama. Even so, they suck the life from stories by making them less rich.

Let’s call the first, “Boss out of the Box” and take Wonder Woman as an example (not because it’s a bad movie, but because we’ve all watched it). Spoilers after the cut.

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Conan and the Philosopher of Swords: Damon Young at the Edinburgh Book Festival and in Island Magazine

Conan and the Philosopher of Swords: Damon Young at the Edinburgh Book Festival and in Island Magazine

Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion.
Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion.

Art by Brom for "Queen of the Black Coast"
Conan the Id-barian…

A dozen of us sit in the round, beards bushing, long hair flowing over metalesque T-shirts. An energetic 40-something bloke hands out sheets and clipboards. Each bears a picture of Conan the Barbarian.

We’re at the super highbrow Edinburgh International Book Festival, but it feels like an over-stuffed old-school D&D group.

It’s a mostly male ensemble. My teen-aged son is the the youngest, I’m probably the least cool, and there are faces I recognise from the monthly Event Horizon SciFi gig.

However, we’re not actually here to roll dice. Rather, it’s one of the Book Festival’s Reading Workshops: intimate symposiums on reading a particular author or book. In this case — you guessed it — Damon Young, academic philosopher and Australian progressive public intellectual, is about lead a discussion on the Conan stories by the very late, but — by Crom he was too young when he died! — still lamented Robert E Howard:

Damon Young is an award-winning writer and philosopher. Join him for today’s workshop exploring Robert E Howard’s lovingly crafted sword and sorcery hero. Howard created Conan the Barbarian for a magazine in the 1930s and it has since spawned countless books, comics, video games and films. Expect an open discussion from the start; you can read the stories ahead of the event or be inspired to pick them up afterwards.

Take a moment to savour that.

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