A Classic Science Fiction Simulator: Howard Andrew Jones and Todd McAulty on Traveller

Sunday, January 19th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Traveller Role Playing Game closeup-small

Classic Traveller box set (Games Designers Workshop, 1977)

Over at Tor.com, Howard Andrew Jones and I (under my pseudonym Todd McAulty, the name I use for fiction writing) have posted an article on Classic Traveller, a science fiction role playing game we both dearly love. Here’s a taste.

Todd: It’s fair to say that Classic Traveller was basically a ‘50s/’60s science fiction simulator. It was deeply inspired and influenced by the mid-century SF of E.C. Tubb, H. Beam Piper, Keith Laumer, Harry Harrison, Isaac Asimov, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, and most especially Poul Anderson.

Howard: Classic Traveller was very light on setting—

Todd: To put it mildly!

Howard: —but it sketched the scene in broad strokes. Players adventured in a human-dominated galaxy riven by conflict, thousands of years in the future. The star-spanning civilization of that future looked an awful lot like the galactic civilizations imagined by Asimov, Anderson, Jack Vance, Gene Roddenberry and others.

The two of us had a lot of fun, but I have to say the article got a lot more interesting once E. E. Knight showed up to share some of his experiences at the gaming table.

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The Best in Modern Sword & Sorcery: The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Volume 3

Sunday, January 12th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Volume 3-small The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Volume 3-back-small

Cover by Zoltan

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly has been published, like clockwork, every quarter since June 2009. And every eight issues, like clockwork, the editors of HFQ assemble a Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly volume, as a way to celebrate another milestone and promote their worthy magazine.

These books are top-notch examples of modern sword & sorcery (and I’m not just saying that because I was invited to write the introduction for Volume I.) In his review of Volume I, Fletcher Vredenburgh wrote:

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is… the most consistent forum for the best in contemporary swords & sorcery. Some may think I’m laying it on a little thick, but The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly: Volume 1, 2009-2011, a distillation of the mag’s first three years, should prove that I’m not.

Volume III has just arrived, with a dynamic cover by Zoltan and stories by Charles Gramlich, P. Djéli Clark, Adrian Simmons, David Farney, and many others — plus an introduction by Darrell Schweitzer, and original art for each story by Miguel Santos, Justin Pfiel, Garry McCluskey, Robert Zoltan, and others. It’s an all-around gorgeous package, and a fine reminder that Heroic Fantasy is still a vibrant genre in the 21st Century. Here’s the complete Table of Contents.

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There Will Never Be an End to Wonder: James Davis Nicoll on Poul Anderson

Wednesday, January 8th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Brain Wave Poul Anderson

Brain Wave by Poul Anderson (Ballantine Books, 1954). Cover by Richard Powers.

Poul Anderson was one of my favorite science fiction writers when I first discovered the genre. That interest didn’t survive into adulthood. While I still read Vance, Zelazny, Delany, I probably haven’t picked up a Poul Anderson novel in 30 years. It’s mostly neglect, rather than any conscious choice. It’s simply been too long since a Poul Anderson book survived the cut in my to-be-read pile.

I finally read James Davis Nicoll’s Tor.com article Celebrating Five Favourite Works by Poul Anderson, published on the 93rd anniversary of his birth, November 25, and it was a fine reminder of why Anderson’s work used to appeal to me… and why much of it maybe still does. Here’s Nicoll on the the 1953 novel Brain Wave.

The Earth emerges from an intelligence-suppressing field. Every creature that can think suddenly finds itself five times smarter. All humans of normal intelligence wake to find themselves geniuses. Animals discover that they can now think around the barriers used to control them. Human institutions crumble because humans are too bright to believe in them, while the agricultural systems on which we depend are themselves threatened by animals no longer willing to be stock or prey.

This could very easily have been an apocalyptic tale (superhuman humans shrug and carry on eating creatures that now fully understand what’s going on) — but that’s not the direction in which a comparatively young Anderson took his novel. Instead, the various viewpoint characters do their best to find new, better ways to live.

That’s a strongly appealing review, especially for a 66-year old book. But in many ways that matter, Anderson still speaks to modern readers. As Nicoll writes in his review of The Enemy Stars, “Anderson delivered on the promise. He took worldbuilding very seriously. He understood the sheer immensity of the universe… There will never be an end to wonder.”

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The Joy of Starter Kits, Part Two

Saturday, January 4th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill


Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set Second Edition,
edited by Tom Moldvay (TSR, 1981). Cover by Erol Otis.

I often wonder how new players discover role playing these days.

I mean, I know how it happens in theory. You’re introduced to the concept through video games, or friends, or a gaming club, or maybe Stranger Things. The whole thing sounds pretty cool. Eventually you take the plunge and shell out for a set of hardcover rule books and dice, and become a genuine RPG gamer. Sure, it’s a commitment. But it’s no more expensive than other pastimes of the idle rich, like polo or yacht racing.

It’s that initial expense that gets me. The D&D Players Handbook, the most fundamental RPG book on the market, retails for $49.95 — and it’s only one of three you really need. And that doesn’t even include dice. God knows how pricey those are these days.

It used to be easier. You used to be able to try D&D the same way your tried Monopoly, with an impulse buy of a single reasonably-priced box. That’s how I got started in the fall of 1979, when I bought the D&D Basic Set after seeing a few magazine ads in Analog and picking up a copy at the local gaming store. The sheer financial (not to mention emotional) commitment required of modern RPGs is a serious barrier to entry, and many game publishers have gradually come to that realization.

In Part One of this article I looked at some of the games that have embraced the old idea of the Starter Kit, an inexpensive box set that includes everything new players need to learn the fundamentals of role playing and have a few adventures. This new generation includes Pathfinder, Starfinder, Battletech, Numenera, Shadowrun, and others. In Part Two we look at Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, Star Trek Adventures, Warhammer, Star Wars, and the new breed of Dungeons and Dragons beginner boxes.

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From Buffalo Castle to Choose Your Own Adventure: The Evolution of Solitaire Board Games

Tuesday, December 31st, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Buffalo Castle Rick Loomis-small Death Test The Fantasy Trip-small Wizards and Warriors Jeffrey Dillow-small

I’m old enough to remember when Choose Your Own Adventure books first appeared in bookstores and supermarkets in the late 70s and early 80s, and what a sensation they created.

I remember thinking how simplistic they were, especially compared to the more sophisticated solitaire fare already available in gaming stores at the time. Like Rick Loomis’ groundbreaking Buffalo Castle (Flying Buffalo, 1976), the first solo adventure for Tunnels & Trolls (and considered by some to be the first published adventure gamebook, period); Steve Jackson’s bestselling Death Test for The Fantasy Trip (Metagaming, 1978); and especially Jeffrey C. Dillow’s brilliant collection of early solo adventures, Wizards and Warriors (Prentice Hall, 1982), which I played to death and passed around repeatedly to my gaming group.

But there was something powerfully appealing in the very simplicity of Choose Your Own Adventure titles, and it didn’t take long for me to become a convert. I wasn’t the only one. Bantam published its first Choose Your Own Adventure book, The Cave of Time by creator Edward Packard, in 1979, and the series quickly surpassed role playing in popularity, selling more than 250 million copies. That’s more — far more — than virtually any RPG or fantasy or series in history. (For comparison, The Lord of the Rings has sold 150 million copies over the past 70 years, and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels a scant 90 million. Only J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, at 500 million, offer real competition). Bantam produced 184 titles in the series between 1979 and 1998.

Role Playing has evolved and expanded enormously since the 70s. You can’t say the same of Choose Your Own Adventure… but the franchise isn’t as dead as you might think. Most interesting to serious games is a pair of cooperative adventure board games released by Z-Man Games that capture the spirit of the CToA line, and take it in some intriguing new directions.

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John DeNardo on the Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Books for December

Tuesday, December 31st, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Splintegrate Deborah Teramis Christian-small The Best of Uncanny edited by Lynne M. Thomas-small Invocations Warhammer Horror-small

The Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, one of my favorite genre websites, essentially shut down on December 16th of this year, firing all freelancers and halting production of new content. They’ve left older content up, thankfully, so our many links to articles by Jeff Somers, Joel Cunningham, and others still work (for now). Like Penguin’s much-missed Unbound Worlds (formerly Suvudu), the B&N Sci-Fi Blog was an inventive and far-ranging publisher-funded genre site that never found a business model, or managed to consistently prove value to its owner in the rapidly-changing publishing industry. I’ll miss many things about the site, but most of all I’ll miss their monthly round-up of the best new SF and fantasy titles.

Fortunately we still have the tireless John DeNardo, who still does a top-notch round-up as part of his regular article series at Kirkus Reviews. This month John calls out new books by Deborah Teramis Christian, Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, Jeff VanderMeer, Tomi Adeyemi, Rachel Atwood, Charles Soule, Joe R. Lansdale, and others. Here’s a few highlights.

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Sixty Years of Lunar Anthologies

Saturday, December 28th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Men on the Moon-small The Moon Era-small Blue Moon-small

Men on the Moon (Ace, 1958, cover by Emsh), The Moon Era (Curtis Books, 1969), Blue Moon (Mayflower, 1970, Josh Kirby)

This past July was the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing — a pretty major milestone in human civilization. A major milestone for science fiction fans as well, and we celebrated it in our own way. Most notably, Neil Clarke published The Eagle Has Landed: 50 Years of Lunar Science Fiction, a fat 570-page reprint anthology that I finally bought last week.

Neil’s book is the best moon-centered anthology I’ve ever seen, but it builds on a long history of classic SF volumes dating back at least six decades. While I was preparing a New Treasures article about it I kept going back to look at favorite moon books in my collection, and eventually I got the idea to craft a longer piece on half a dozen Lunar anthologies that all deserved a look.

I don’t mean to slight Neil’s excellent book, which we’ll dig into in detail. But if you’re like me and you can’t pick up a modern book about the moon without thinking of Donald A. Wollheim’s Ace Double Men on the Moon (from 1958), or Mike Ashley’s terrific Moonrise: The Golden Era of Lunar Adventures, then this article is for you.

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Vintage Treasures: The Space Anthologies, edited by David Drake with Charles G. Waugh and Martin Harry Greenberg

Thursday, December 26th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Space Gladiators-small Space Infantry-small Space Dreadnoughts-medium

Covers by Walter Velez

Almost exactly a month ago I wrote about a trio of military/adventure science fiction anthologies edited by Joe Haldeman, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin Harry Greenberg, and published by Ace Books between 1986-88: Body Armor: 2000, Supertanks, and Space Fighters. Today they’re called the Tomorrow’s Warfare trilogy, and they’re a fun and collectible set of vintage paperbacks well worth tracking down, especially if you enjoy 80s-vintage military/adventure fantasy or are even remotely curious about 80s science fiction in general. Check out all the details here.

Haldeman did no further books with Waugh and Greenberg. But I suspect the three he did were fairly successful, as scarcely a year later David Drake picked up the reins and produced three books with them in the exact same vein:

Space Gladiators (1989)
Space Infantry (1989)
Space Dreadnoughts (1990)

These are loosely referred to as the Space anthologies (by me, anyway), and they followed the same formula as the previous titles, with stories from the most popular writers of the day including a Retief novella by Keith Laumer, a Dorsai tale by Gordon R. Dickson, a Magnus Ridolph novelette by Jack Vance, a Falkenberg’s Legion story by Jerry Pournelle, a Hammer’s Slammers novelette by David Drake, a Thousand Worlds tale by George R. R. Martin, plus the Hugo-award winning “Allamagoosa” by Eric Frank Russell, the classic “Arena” by Fredric Brown (inspiration for the famed Star Trek episode of the same name), and fiction by Isaac Asimov, Brian W. Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, Fritz Leiber, Joe Haldeman, Poul Anderson, Algis Budrys, Jack Williamson, Michael Shaara, Mack Reynolds, C. M. Kornbluth, and many others.

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Merry Christmas from Black Gate

Wednesday, December 25th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Black Gate Christmas tree

It’s Christmas evening. All the presents have been opened, Alice’s quiche has been consumed, the kids have settled down… and it’s 56 degrees outside, the warmest Christmas of my entire life. Every year a new surprise.

I have a cup of hot cocoa, and it’s finally quiet enough for me to write my annual Christmas message. As the years have gone by (decades now, since that long ago time in 1999 when I made the fateful decision to start a fantasy magazine), I find that I look back at each successive year very differently. I used to take stock of our accomplishments, count up how many books and games we’d reviewed, how many articles written. Nowadays I value things differently. The things I care about now are the comments from our readers, the small suggestions and feedback from our regulars. In the end, it’s always the relationships that matter.

So I want to take a moment to thank all the BG readers who’ve given so generously of their time over the past year. Those that drop in with a book suggestion, a thoughtful comment, an encouraging word. It means a lot. And I’d especially like to thank our regulars: Thomas Parker, Rich Horton, Glenn, smitty59, Major Wootton, Eugene R, Bob Byrne, R.K. Robinson, James Enge, Aonghus Fallon, Joe H, silentdante, Charles_Martel, Jeff Stehman, Barsoomia, kelleyg, Allard, Joe Bonadonna, Jason Waltz, Robert Adam Gilmour, James McGlothlin, Gabe Dybing, Martin Christopher, James Van Pelt, Tony Den, Todd Mason, John E. Boyle, dolphintornsea, John Hocking, and many, many others. You make the effort we put in every day worthwhile. Thank you.

On behalf of the vast and unruly collective that is Black Gate, I would like to wish you all Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Continue being excellent — it’s what you’re good at.

A Sword & Sorcery Christmas

Tuesday, December 24th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Flashing Swords-small

It’s Christmas Eve. Everyone in the O’Neill household is wrapping presents, munching Christmas cookies, and listening to music (so… much… loud… music…). Yesterday I gave up and turned off the portable Bose speaker next to my head, because the music coming out of the basement was so loud I couldn’t hear it.

Christmas break isn’t just about having our kids home, food, and taxing my eardrums. It’s also when I have time for more ambitious reading projects, and this year there’s one in particular I’m really looking forward to. Bob Byrne challenged me to read more Robert E. Howard, and suggested I started with The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume 1:Crimson Shadows from Del Rey. When I asked what was special about the stories in that book, Bob said:

You need to read a couple. The guy running Black Gate has to be a little more REH-read. Solomon Kane is good, but… Read “Worms of the Earth,” the Conan, and the el Borak. That book is where I read my first Solomon Kane. I bought the Kane book right after.

That seems like a good idea to me. I started investigating what others books I wanted to read over the 2019 Christmas break, and came across G. W. Thomas’s exhaustive survey of 44 S&S anthologies on his Dark Worlds blog on November 14. Sword & Sorcery Anthologies 1963-1985 was a handy resource, and helped inspire my reading project to grow into a deeper exploration of 20th Century Sword & Sorcery.

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