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Favorite Reads January 2019

Crawling out of my crypt for a bit. Here are the books that lit my wick last month.

Yes, this is late, but new job and all that.

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Five-Twelfths of Heaven by Melissa Scott: Super fun Space Opera where FTL is achieved by alchemy, tarot cards, and harmonic engines that tap as close as possible to the literal music of the spheres. Plus group marriages of convenience, conniving relatives, space pirates, and an “evil empire”. Like I said, super fun.

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The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner: A fantasy novel without wars or big events or an entire cohort of characters to keep track of. Instead, it’s a story of a thief press-ganged into assisting a king’s “magus” in recovering a fabulous treasure that’s more valuable as a symbol than for any monetary value. The world building’s rich and deftly done, and the handful of characters fully realized. Recommended.

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Outside the Gates by Molly Gloss: That 2019 will see all of Molly Gloss’s novels back in print is a great thing, and while I didn’t enjoy this early novel by her as much as her later work, it was still a treat to read – a bit like Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. Vren is a young boy with strange powers exiled from his home and forced to live in the haunted woods outside the gates. There he finds friends, but also a rising threat he must confront.

The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars by Andre Norton: I hadn’t read Andre Norton before now and I absolutely wish I had. Her stuff is absolutely delightful in a pulpy greasy kids stuff sort of way. Murdoc Jern is a galactic gem trader who inherits a magical ring from his murdered father. What secrets does the ring hold and why would people kill for it? Murdoc decides to find out, and ends up on a quest that sees him wandering the space ways with an assorted bunch of companions including Eet, a mutant space cat that bears more than a little resemblance to HR Giger’s Alien.

Plague Ship by Andre Norton: You can read about this one on my Patreon.

 

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Two From 1962

Today’s trip to the vault brings us two science fiction stories from 1962 both written by women and both being contemporary snapshots of their era. But that’s about all they share. The first, “The Sound of Silence” by Barbara Constant, is pitched as melodrama. The second, “The Glory of Ippling” by Helen M. Urban, is pitched more as satire. I’ll put links to each at the bottom of this post. Both are worth the few minutes they take to read.

Onward. Downward.

First up, “The Sound of Silence” by Barbara Constant. Spoilers abound.

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The artwork “by Schelling” hooked me before I even started the story. It’s like a still from a black & white TV show or soap opera or even an episode of Mad Men. The teary-eyed woman, clutching her handkerchief, the indifferent man with his horn-rimmed glasses, the décor in the background, all of it looks less like science fiction and more like a day-time television show. All before the story even starts. Interesting.

The story itself is about one Lucilla “Lucky” Brown, a secretary for a Los Angeles advertising firm. Lucky seems to have everything going for her at least as far as her boss and coworkers think. So why then does she leave the office at 4:30PM three days a week to see a psychiatrist? No one can believe it let alone explain it. Especially not junior executive Paul Chapman who all fall and winter was very interested in Lucky Brown, but by spring and summer wasn’t interested in anything much at all.

Well, turns out Lucky is telepathic and has been all her life. As a child she found great joy in this, but then her parents taught her to be ashamed of her ability. After that she managed to mask her powers from herself by simply believing herself “lucky”. For years that worked. But then she and Paul Chapman had to work together on an advertising campaign and while they seemed so sympathetic in so many ways, the outcome led to collapse for both of them. During the campaign, while doing project research, they read old pulp science fiction magazines, and Lucky found great comfort in their stories of people with fantastic powers, but Paul derided and mocked them. This made that old shame return. Only now it was worse. It brought nightmares of isolation and despair with it. Hence her trips to Dr. Andrews.

This is that sort of science fiction story I believe we are supposed to find uplifting, but which, mainly because I’m a horrible person who likely was hugged the wrong amount as a child, I can’t help but read as both sinister and too treacly sweet. The reason Lucky is going to see Dr. Andrews is because she feels shame that she’s different. Except the different she feels is of that sort that makes her special and there by better than the people around her. I know that’s absolutely not Constant’s intent, but that’s me. It’s absolutely valid to write the stories that reflect the world you wished existed or provide you with those connections you feel you lacked. But those aren’t the stories I like.

On to the “Glory of Ippling”!

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Helen M. Urban’s “The Glory of Ippling” is also set in the world of 1962 California, but the vision it shows is one of wrestling events, burlesque parlors, and advertising gone rampant. It’s less Mad Men and more Mad Magazine and quite possible to read as a lampoon of a certain UFO cult that still exists to this day. All of which makes it almost the exact opposite of “The Sound of Silence”.

In “The Glory of Ippling” the Ipplings are a vast space empire of superior elitists who come across as caricatures of 19th century Austro-Hungarians. They’re big into uniforms and the excellence of their way of doing things. One of their number, one Boswellister who received his post less by skill and more by his social connections, has been sent by the Ipplinger Cultural Contact Group to make contact with humanity. Unfortunately Boswellister is finding it hard-going as humanity is a craven superstitious species, beholden to sensation whether in the wrestling ring or on the stripper’s runway.

When he finally does manage to get our attention, we see him not as the superior specimen of an intergalactic empire he absolutely believes himself to be, but as a salesman pitching a new product. The UFO technology, the dazzling lights, it’s all just more spectacle to get people to buy something. When Boswellister fails to produce the requisite “free samples” a riot ensues, forcing Boswellister and the rest of the Cultural Contact Group to abandon their mission and flee Earth.

This is a very silly story, but a quite fun one that delights in skewering pretensions. It’s a story where everyone is not simply ugly, but absurd. Humanity is absurd. The superior Ipplings are absurd. Especially Boswellister, Boswellister is extremely absurd. He is that guy who calls everyone else sheeple, prides himself on his logic, and laments the vulgarity of the modern world while harassing sex workers. If Boswellister had only waited until 2016. The USA would have elected him president.

Here’s the link to “The Sound of Silence”.

Here’s the link to “The Glory of Ippling”.

The next Yesterweird read will be Plague Ship by Andre Norton. If you like these sort of reads please consider supporting my Patreon.

Favorite Reads 2018

The first two are from December and can stand in for my favorite reads from December 2018 post.

Breath of the Sun by Rachel Fellman: Lamat is a mountain guide and Disaine is a religious woman come to climb the sacred mountain. A really marvelous piece of fantasy writing that does away with a lot of the grand epic storylines of modern fantasy to focus down on the personal and philosophical.

Semiosis by Sue Burke: Classic science fiction of the First Contact sort where the human colonists must figure out how to communicate and survive with an intelligent and arrogant plant. Also, weirdly, has a heavy undercurrent looking at parenting and partnering styles.

The Auctioneer by Joan Samson: Everything changes for a quaint New Hampshire town when a mysterious auctioneer arrives. Soon people are giving away all their prized possessions so as to profit from the auctions, but the trouble keeps ratcheting up because the Auctioneer always wants to sell more. The scariest book I read this year.

Black God’s Drum by P. Djeli Clark: Fun alternate history fantasy adventure novel. A young pick-pocket in the Free City of New Orleans overhears a group of Confederate dead-enders plot to abduct the Haitian scientist responsible for the construction of Haiti’s deterrent super weapon. From such beginnings pulp adventures are born!

The Light of Day by Eric Ambler: I read a few Eric Ambler novels this year, and I loved all of them. This one might have been my favorite because the protagonist, a sleazy taxi driver caught up in a criminal plot, is the most interesting. I also recommend A Coffin for Dmitrios.

The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce: A story about an elderly midwife and her apprentice living on the margins of a rural English village in the 1960s. It’s a deep dive into a small setting that’s almost folk horror but not quite. Highly recommend it.

Jade City by Fonda Lee: The Hong Kong gangster kung fu fantasy novel I didn’t know I needed until I read it. This was a ton of fun. And with the sequel set to come out in 2019, I’m eager to learn what happens next.

Space Opera by Catherynne Valente: In the aftermath of a terrible intergalactic war, the galaxy’s intelligent species have decided they will instead settle their disputes through a musical contest much like the Eurovision contest of our world. Now it’s Earth’s turn to perform, and if we lose our planet is doomed.

Silent Hall by NS Dolkart: A fantasy novel about a world with very active gods and how awful that is for all. This reminded me a lot of the sort of fantasy I devoured in the 1980s, David Eddings, Weiss and Hickman, except Dolkart’s able to update that style with self-awareness to make it appeal to a more contemporary audience. I need to read the sequels.

Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruins of Ymir by John Crowley: A story about a crow that’s sort of immortal as he lives on the margins of our world and watches human civilization develop. Bleak and beautiful.

The Faithful Executioner by Joel F. Harrington: A non-fiction history book that’s the biography of a single man, Franz Schmidt the 16th century executioner in the German city of Nuremberg. The portrait of Schmidt that emerges is that of a man of honor and integrity in a time and place that hardly warranted either.

An Unhappiness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon: A science fiction novel set onboard a generation ship and as is usual with that subgenre, everything that can go wrong does go wrong so the society that emerges is a horrible one. But despite all that, the book’s not one you can look away from.

 

Goodbye 2018

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A last nod to 2018 with a sunrise picture from December 30th.

Things published this past year:

“Periling Hand” at Beneath Ceaseless Skies: A story about a guy, a take-out delivery guy, dealing with his shit, on an alien planet where people harvest pollen using living tractors and they make alliances with intelligent stone circles that might or might not be about to fight a civil war amongst themselves. Basically, a mumble-core space western.

A Ghost Can Only Take” at Reckoning: Not a story but an essay about walking in the grand tradition of “a person takes a walk and won’t stop talking about it” style of essays. (Although heaven forbid you actually go for a walk with them and try to have a conversation then. No. No. That is forbidden.) Strange thing about this essay is that I could keep writing and writing and writing it, because landscape is always happening. Whether it’s cyclically changing with the season or evolving as development occurs, landscape is not a steady state and not even memory can capture it. The latest issue of this magazine is out now. 

Thanks for reading!

I hope you have a Happy New Year.

Coming Soon: Yesterweird

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Back when I read Matthew Lewis’s The Monk and did a chapter by chapter read through marveling at all its marvelous WTFry I thought it would be fun to do more of that. And if you liked that, then you’ll be happy because I’ve decided 2019 will be the year when that happens. Or maybe you won’t be happy, because it’s going to be on Patreon.

For a bit now my wife and I have been talking about using Patreon, she for her comics and me as a tool to keep me motivated and focused on my writing goals. And while I’m not at that brave stage where I’m comfortable sharing drafts of stories I’m working on and all that, I am certainly okay with louding off about old weird books. So that’s going to be the tent pole at first for my foray into Patreon. This blog’s going to remain the place where I post my favorite reads every month and whatever else I feel like.

So without further to do. . . announcing Yesterweird, a book club slash review site where I’ll make regular dips into works available for free online (mostly at Project Gutenberg). To start I’ll be looking at a trio of old science fiction novels, the first one being this radioactive pill of a 1950s YA novel, RIP Foster Rides the Gray Planet. After that my plan’s to write about some of Andre Norton’s space opera stuff and John Joseph Astor IV’s 1894 planetary romance novel A Journey in Other Worlds. Astor was like the Elon Musk of his day and supposedly the richest man to die on the RMS Titanic.

So support to follow along and read sentences like “he liked his war how he liked his equations. Cold.” Or just to find out why I thought that sentence was funny.  And if you pledge at the 5-dollar level you can even decide what I’ll read next. If you’ve wanted to know more about some painful old tome, but never wanted to take the time to actually read it now’s your chance to make me do it!

Yes, launching a Patreon where I blog for loose change in January is our era’s version of the going to the gym more often New Years resolution, but so what? That’s what I’m doing. It could be worse. I could be writing this to announce that I’m launching a podcast.

The Red Star Inn

Had the first session of a new D&D campaign. I’m running it with 5e using Jack Shear’s Krevborna setting. Like all good campaigns do, the first session started in an inn…

Inn Keeper

I pretty much rely on three opening scenarios to bring an adventuring party together: escape from jail, shipwreck, or solve a murder. Here I was using the latter. Having read some on the Gumshoe system I used the simple rule that the players will always find the clue. Their dice rolls will only determine how clear the information they learn is.

So far there’s only three players. There’s the fighter from a (vampiric) family of Lamasthu nobles who had once been the vessel for a demonic power. Another former soldier from Lamasthu who had witnessed his village destroyed. And a bard escaping the criminal underworld of the nearby city Piskaro. In the middle of the night a murder occurred. The innkeeper and his family brutally slain. The culprit? A guest in the inn. The suspects:

  • A gambler and his body guard
  • A farmer and his son
  • A much less likable farmer
  • A merchant
  • A beggar woman prone to visions
  • An old priest and a young acolyte

Most everyone had a secret. The merchant was having an affair with the innkeeper’s wife and had been seen going downstairs in the middle of the night. The unlikable farmer was a lookout for a bandit gang. The beggar woman had the serving girl’s crushed skull in her bag. The young acolyte was actually a woman in disguise on the run from her family. And there was a dead soldier in the barn.

Things happened. Unexpected things.

The gambler and his bodyguard were designed to be a bandit/thug encounter, but the party negotiated with them. Sort of. One of the fighter players came upon the pair robbing the inn’s till and instead of trying to stop them let them go. The other fighter got attacked by the devourer without knowing where it was coming from. And the bard did a decent job playing detective.

The real culprit? An intellect devourer that was using its ability to hop from skull to skull. It made an attack or two against the party without them realizing what was going on except they felt their skulls being crushed. Its goal was to get inside the priest’s skull and leave the inn. But to do that it had to leave a trail of dead bodies behind it. The merchant, the two adult farmers, and the priest all wound up getting taken over by the devourer with the requisite scenes of player character interrogating one of them only to have the suspect’s head suddenly explode as the devourer fled to another occupant.

Combat against the devourer proved rough. One fighter got knocked out and the other failed a fear check and proved less than effective.* In the end the bard’s spells proved more valuable than either fighter in fighting a creature resistant to so many attack types. Now the player’s have agreed to replace the priest as the acolyte’s escort to a nearby abbey in the marsh.

Next game scheduled for Sunday.

* Invariably the player who writes the longest backstory about what a bad ass they are will not roll above a 10 on a D20 for at least 75% of the adventure.

 

 

The Frogs

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This is another fable sparked by class conversation. I’ll assume most of you will be familiar with the frog in the well story. Here’s my treacly version of it.

So there were three frogs that grew up living at the bottom of a well. They lived there all alone happy to know nothing about the outside world. One day after a rainstorm the water in the well rose to the point where the frogs could see the outside world. They saw the sky. They heard the birds. They could smell all the smells in the fields around the well. So they decided to jump out and see this new world. It was a lot to take in. Some of it good. Some of it bad. They were stunned. The flies were bigger than the little flies they got down where they lived at the bottom of the well. The world was louder and less muffled than what they’d heard in the dark below. And the sun was so much brighter than they expected.

Suddenly a bird landed directly in front of them.  It was a tall long necked long legged crane with eyes like glass pellets and a beak as sharp as a knife. The frogs had never seen a creature like this before, and could do nothing but stare up at it in awe. It bent down and in one great big gulp swallowed the center frog whole. Just like that their friend was gone. The frogs fled. One jumped back down the well. The other jumped into a nearby pond. Which frog do you think was better off: the one that went back into the dark below, where he was safe, but closed off all alone, or the one that jumped into the pond that found a way despite the dangers to live in the wide open world?