Friday, August 17, 2018

Pre-Tolkien Challenge: The Abominations of Yondo

I selected Clark Ashton Smith as part of my Challenge readings, not only because he was one of the three pillars of Weird Tales, but also since he was one of the writers in the American tradition of fantasy that brought forth H.P. Lovecraft. Thanks to Campbell's Unknown and the explosion of Tolkien copycats, this American tradition of weird fantasy has been relegated to pastiche and parody. Smith's "The Abominations of Yondo", his first short story, shows what's been lost along the way.

An unnamed narrator recounts his journey into the desolated deserts of Yondo, a region at the edge of the world-rin ruined by exposure to the Great Beyond:
I will not detail the indiscretions which had led me, a careless stranger from far-off lands, into the power of those dreadful magicians and mysteriarchs who serve the lion-headed Ong. These indiscretions, and the particulars of my arrest, are painful to remember; and least of all do I like to remember the racks of dragon-gut strewn with powdered adamant, on which men are stretched naked; or that unlit room with six-inch windows near the sill, where bloated corpse worms crawled in by hundreds from a neighboring catacomb. Sufficient to say that, after expending the resources of their frightful fantasy, my inquisitors had borne me blindfolded on camel-back for incomputable hours, to leave me at morning twilight in that sinister forest. I was free, they told me, to go whither I would; and in token of the clemency of Ong, they gave me a loaf of coarse bread and a leathern bottle of rank water by way of provision. It was at noon of the same day that I came to the desert of Yondo. 
So far, I had not thought of turning back, for all the horror of those rotting cacti, or the evil things that dwelt among them. Now, I paused knowing the abominable legend of the land to which I had come; for Yondo is a place where few have ventured wittingly and of their own accord. Fewer still have returned - babbling of unknown horrors and strange treasure; and the life-long palsy which shakes their withered limbs, together with the mad gleam in their starting eyes beneath whitened brows and lashes, is not an incentive for others to follow. So it was that I hesitated on the verge of those ashen sands, and felt the tremor of a new fear in my wrenched vitals. It was dreadful to go on, and dreadful to go back, for I felt sure that the priests had made provision against the latter contingency. So after a little I went forward, singing at each step in loathly softness, and followed by certain long-legged insects that I had met among the cacti. These insects were the color of a week-old corpse and were as large as tarantulas; but when I turned and trod upon the foremost, a mephitic stench arose that was more nauseous even than their color. So, for the nonce, I ignored them as much as possible.
The story is simple, but like all simple things, the quality is in the execution. Smith writes a dense prose equivalent to a tone poem, where each paragraph evokes new horrors through multiple senses. The careless would call this prose purple, but Smith is painting revulsion with words. The current fashion of one sensory word a page is not enough to create the dread required. Like with John Wright, a dictionary is a must with Clark Ashton Smith, and just as rewarding.

Smith is as profligate with description as modern fantasists with history and back-story. By focusing on sensation and mood, he immerses readers within paragraphs, where present-day writers require chapters. And thus Yondo is more memorable than the Three Rivers, Elantris, or Camorr, despite the chapters' worth of words spent on each.

Writers should study Smith's descriptions, while readers can enjoy an eerie tale of an unknown that should rightly be feared, with shivers that grow stronger when read aloud.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Pre-Tolkien Short Story Challenge

One of the often repeated refrains from the vile Cult of Resentment is that so much Fantasy is just rehashed, Tolkien fanfiction. Unfortunately, there is some truth in this, a lot of modern multi-volume fantasy is quite derivative of Middle Earth. Pale imitators lacking the poetic and moral compass of JRRT. Due to the popularity of the imitators, and the almost systematic erasure of most pre-Tolkien fantasy from the public sphere, a new reader often thinks of Middle Earth as ground zero for fantasy, myself included. 
But that is starting to change, big thanks to Jeffro’s Appendix N for one, and also a revival of the pulp aesthetic by indie magazines like Cirsova and Storyhack and the many new writers affiliated with the PulpRev movement.
In order to educate, and also hopefully find some great reading material for myself, I propose a challenge to all my blogger friends. 
Pre-Tolkien Short Story Challenge
  • Identify 3 Fantasy stories written before Lord of the Rings was published. 3 stories written before 1954.
  • Review all three on your blog, focusing on pre-Tolkien differences of similarities, and making sure you let us know where we can find them for ourselves.
  • Share the challenge. I think this will be an interesting exercise. I hope a lot of people join me so I can compile a great collection of reviews that hopefully will inspire others to read older Fantasy.
I floated reading ideas with friends and received enough suggestions to volunteer twice. And the best part, is, with the exception of the occasional short story, these authors will be new to me.

For the first three, I will be reading:
  • "At the Mountains of Madness" - H. P. Lovecraft
  • "The Abominations of Yondo" - Clark Ashton Smith
  • "The Death of Halpin Frayser" - Ambrose Bierce
For the second three, I will be reading works from Lord Dunsany, John Buchan, and Lafcadio Hearn. Availability will determine which stories I will read.

For not reading these six earlier, I offer repentance.  And reviews to come.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Mortu and Kyrus: The Conversation Begins

With the floodgates now breached by The Frisky Pagan, the conversation about Schuyler Hernstrom's "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" has been unleashed.

Jon Mollison had been holding his tongue for a week, but now no longer. The moratorium on spoilers is lifted, so beware.
If you’ve read Mortu and Kyrus, then you know that the classic pair of big burly barbarian and nimble little thief still has a lot of mileage left in it.  Especially when the barbarian is a hog riding, gene-enhanced warbeast whose people revolted against those who enslaved humanity, and the thief is actually a wise priest trapped in the body of a “harmless” little monkey.  You also know that, at its heart, it’s an answer to Le Guin’s Hugo Award winning short, er, story? called The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas. 
It’s been three decades since Le Guin’s revolt against decency revolted me, so take with a grain of salt that my memory is hazy.  If it serves, Le Guin’s story isn’t really a story at all.  It’s more of a travelogue where nothing happens except Le Guin painting the picture of a utopia maintained by the misery of a child.  I won’t reread the story to confirm it – I’ve better thing to do than wallow in the mud of the 60s and 70s world of sf/f.  Too many pedophiles running rampant there, you see… 
Speaking of which, just as a brief aside, has it ever occurred to you that Omelas is not just an example of the postmodern love of encouraging utilitarian thought through the use of narrow and impossible train/lever stories dressed up in sf/f clothing?  Consider for a moment what we now know of the scene in which Le Guin worked. 
Omelas may not be a hypothetical story – it’s Le Guin justifying her decision to live within the real world Omelas of science-fiction and fantasy. Published a decade after the Breendoggle, in which the big names of the sf/f world came together to defend the child raping predilections of Walter Breen and Marion Zimmer Bradley, here was an author who had been living in Omelas for years.  It’s no surprise that she should write a story about her decision, nor that the Hugo voters would issue an award to a story that so succinctly…well, it either captured their own experiences, or justified their choice to live in Omelas, depending on who and how the modern reader wants to look at it form the comfy perch of forty-five years down the road.
Jon's opinion is not hyperbole. Even as recently as five years ago, the story was used as a parable in SFF. John Ringo used the story of Omelas to explain the flight of many from convention fandom. Omelas became the approved moral response to many kinds of unpleasantness found at the heart of the SFF scene. That Sky Hernstrom offers an alternative to acquiescence and self-exile represents a rejection of those values. It might be polite accident, but it is telling that the characters to fling this rebuke at the empathy trap of Omelas are a pagan and a Christian. But more on that tomorrow.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Emperor Ponders: Mortu and Kyrus

This month, Schuyler Hernstrom has graced us with two excellent fantasy stories. "The Law of Wolves" is a dark fairy tale, a morality play that plays against the current zeitgeist. But it is "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" that has many of us abuzz. Quietly, though, for while Mortu and Kyrus is an excellent axe and sorcery in a Dying Earth future, it is also a bloody rebuttal to one of the "classics" of science fiction. Many commenters are holding their tongues, lest they spoil the surprise.

But for those who have read Mortu and Kyrus, The Frisky Pagan from the old Puppy of the Month Club has posted his review at his personal blog. There be spoilers beyond the link:
Now, to the second book, Mortu and Kyrus in the White City. The people I follow who have read it have been quite enthusiastic about the book, and they have also hinted or mentioned that this book “answers” or attacks a classic sf&f short story. I did not know that at first, but it’s relevant as I will explain later if you read the spoilerific part. 
In its outermost layer or reading, Mortu and Kyrus, follows the tradition of sword & sorcery (although not much of the latter being shown explicitly) but set in a world (our world, by the way) following the post-apoc tropes of the Mad Max-inspired settings, with the usual elements: sprawling deserts, ruins of the past civilizations, and so forth. I say tropes because the postapoc elements are aesthetic or background and there isn’t a traditional “apocalypse” either. It’s not a story set just after the global destruction in our era but many epochs later, and the damage to the planet and humanity is not really self-inflicted (nuclear weapons, virus, etc.) as much as a result of an external invasion by immortal and highly-advanced aliens.
Now that the waters have been broken, expect more reviews from critics soon. Both of Hernstrom's stories are just that good. So, if you haven't read them yet, now's your chance. Because the whirlwind is on its way.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Cirsova Kickstarter

Cirsova Magazine is in the last days of its Kickstarter, and it needs $500 or so in pledges prior to Friday to fund the first issues of its second volume. For those interested in excellent short fiction, including that by Schuyler Hernstrom and others, you can get the closing issues of volume 1, featuring:

Issue 9:
  • All that Glitters, by Paul Lucas
  • The Orb of Xarkax, by Xavier Lastra
Short Stories
  • The Faerie Pool, by Edward McDermott
  • Our Lords, the Swine, by N.A. Roberts
  • The Bejeweled Chest, by S.K. Inkslinger
  • Antares, by PC Bushi
  • Cirque des Etoiles, by Bo Balder
  • Hot Water in Wormtown, by Robert Lang
  • Littermates (Part 2 of 2), by J.D. Brink
  • Jack's Basement, by Michael Tierney
Issue 10:
  • Crying in the Salt House, by B. Morris Allen
Short Stories
  • A Song in Deepest Darkness, by Jason Carney
  • Amsel the Immortal, by Lauren Goff
  • An Interrupted Scandal, by Misha Burnett
  • The Sword of the Mangoose, by Jim Breyfogle
  • When Gods Fall in Fire, by Brian K. Lowe
  • The Best Workout, by Frederick Gero Heimbach
  • Jeopardy off Jupiter IV, by Spencer E. Hart
To help sweeten the deal and bring Cirsova across the finish line, several authors have contributed their own works to the pledge levels. If you pledge at the $20 full vol 1 digital, $20 ($12 + $8 S&H) physical subscription, or higher, you will also receive Grey Cat Blues by JD Cowan, and The Hymn of the Pearl by Brian Niemeier.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The 2018 Dragon Awards Nominee List

The ballot for the 2018 Dragon Awards has finally been released. It has been satisfying to see the joy overflowing from the nominees as they made their announcements over the past week, and, along with the variety of nominees in each category, it bodes well for the future of the award. Congrats to all the nominees.

My picks for the voting are underlined.

Best Science Fiction Novel
  • It Takes Death to Reach a Star by Gareth Worthington and Stu Jones
  • Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey
  • The Mutineer’s Daughter by Chris Kennedy and Thomas A. Mays
  • Win by Vera Nazarian
  • Sins of Her Father by Mike Kupari
  • Artemis by Andy Weir
Best Fantasy Novel (Including Paranormal)
  • Shoot the Messenger by Pippa DaCosta
  • War Hammer by Shayne Silvers
  • Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Land: Predators by Aleron Kong
  • The Traitor God by Cameron Johnston
  • A Tempered Warrior by Jon R. Osborne
Best Young Adult / Middle Grade Novel
  • Cold Bath Street by A.J. Hartley
  • A Court of Frost and Starlight by Sarah J. Maas
  • When Tinker Met Bell by Alethea Kontis
  • Brightly Burning by Alexa Donne
  • Warcross by Marie Lu
  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel
  • Communications Failure by Joe Zieja
  • Points of Impact by Marko Kloos
  • Ghost Marines: Integration by Jonathan P. Brazee
  • Price of Freedom by Craig Martelle and Michael Anderle
  • Legend by Christopher Woods
  • A Call to Vengeance by David Weber, Timothy Zahn, and Thomas Pope
Best Alternate History Novel
  • Dark State by Charles Stross
  • The Sea Peoples by S.M. Stirling
  • Witchy Winter by D.J. Butler
  • Uncharted by Kevin J. Anderson and Sarah A. Hoyt
  • Dream of the Iron Dragon by Robert Kroese
  • Minds of Men by Kacey Ezell
Best Media Tie-In Novel
  • Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray
  • Before the Storm by Christie Golden
  • Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson
  • Fear Itself by James Swallow
  • Legacy of Onyx by Matt Forbeck
  • Desperate Hours by David Mack
Best Horror Novel
  • Beneath the Lighthouse by Julieanne Lynch
  • Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
  • A Time to Run by Mark Wandrey
  • The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay
  • Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King
  • Glimpse by Jonathan Maberry
Best Comic Book
  • Mighty Thor by Jason Aaron and James Harren, Marvel Comics
  • Doomsday Clock by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, DC Comics
  • Aliens: Dead Orbit by James Stokoe, Dark Horse Comics
  • Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerads, DC Comics
  • Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, Image Comics
  • Star Wars: Darth Vader by Charles D. Soule and Giuseppe Camuncoli, Marvel Comics
Best Graphic Novel
  • Chicago Typewriter: The Red Ribbon by Brandon Fiadino, Djibril Morissette-Phan, and James Greatorex, Dark Legion Comics
  • Brandon Sanderson’s White Sand Volume 1 by Brandon Sanderson, Rik Hoskin, and Julius M. Gopez, Dynamite Entertainment
  • Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol
  • Monstress Vol. 2: The Blood by Marjorie M. Liu, Sana Takeda, Image Comics
  • Vision (The Vision) by Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Marvel Comics
  • Paper Girls Volume 4 by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang, Image Comics
Best Science Fiction or Fantasy TV Series
  • The Expanse, Syfy
  • Game of Thrones, HBO
  • Lucifer, Fox
  • Supernatural, CW
  • Star Trek: Discovery, CBS All Access
  • Altered Carbon, Netflix
  • Stranger Things, Netflix
Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Movie
  • Incredibles 2 directed by Brad Bird
  • Thor: Ragnorok directed by Taika Waititi
  • Blade Runner 2049 directed by Denis Villeneuve
  • Avengers: Infinity War directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
  • Black Panther directed by Ryan Coogler
  • Ready Player One directed by Steven Spielberg
  • Deadpool 2 directed by Dave Leitch
Best Science Fiction or Fantasy PC / Console Game
  • Fortnite by Epic Games
  • Cuphead by Studio MDHR
  • Middle-earth: Shadow of War by Monolith Productions
  • Destiny 2 by Bungie
  • Battletech by Harebrained Schemes
  • Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus by MachineGames
Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Mobile Game
  • Planescape: Torment by Black Isle Studios
  • Nocked! by Andrew Schneider
  • Lineage 2: Revolution by Netmarble
  • Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition by Square Enix
  • Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery by Jam City
Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Board Game
  • Rising Sun by CMON Games
  • When I Dream by Asmodee
  • Mysterium: Secrets and Lies Expansion by Asmodee
  • Azul by Plan B Games
  • Red Dragon Inn 6: Villains by Slugfest Games
  • Photosynthesis by Blue Orange
Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Miniatures / Collectible Card / Role-Playing Game
  • Warhammer 40,000 8th Edition by Games Workshop
  • Force and Destiny Role-playing Game: Knights of Fate by Fantasy Flight Games
  • Bubblegumshoe – RPG by Evil Hat
  • Cooking with Dice: The Acid Test by Oddfish Games
  • D100 Dungeon by Martin Knight
  • Magic: The Gathering Unstable by Wizards of the Coast

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Tales from The Book of the Dead: Son of Texas

Not all of E Hoffman Price's visit to Texas was filled with bad news. Here, he recalls his introduction to Robert E. Howard in person, leaving no doubt that Howard was indeed a son of Texas:
Soon after tucking home a farm style-breakfast, I met Bob: tall, broad, towering--squarish face, tanned to swarthiness--deep chest, short, solid neck--a lot of man. His expression was stolid, phlegmatic until he thrust out a big hand, smiled, and spoke. The quite friendliness of his voice came as a surprise. I'd expected the rumble of a bull, with a bit of lion-mutter. H. P. L., who had never met Howard, had fancifully characterized him in letters to the "Circle," in terms which suggested what I'd expected. 
He was utterly unlike the grim fellows he presented in W. T.  His manner and voice were gracious, winning as his "presence." Presence is that which, if a shipwrecked sailor has it, enables him to preach to the cannibal natives instead of joining his shipmates as part of the long-pig banquet. 
Our meeting, after five or six years of amiable correspondence, was as heart warming as the hospitality of his parents. 
Bob had two idiosyncrasies of pronunciation: W-O-U-N-D, which Conan inflicted whenever possible, was vocalized as in saying, I wound the clock. In S-W-O-R-D, he gave W its full force as a consonant. This was mildly interesting. The first of the several utterances which left me blinking and groping was delivered as he and I strolled down the un-notable main street of Cross Plains. 
"Ed. I am God-damn proud to have you come and see me." 
Like that. Blunt, forthright, and without any relation whatsoever to the context of anything we'd said during our short walk from home. 
"What the hell have you to be proud of? It's the other way around. As I was telling your Dad, you're the only one of the Weird Tales crowd that's breaking into everything but confessions and love pulps!. I'm sweating peach seeds, trying to follow your example. If there's any being proud, it's my turn, being your guest." 
Bob grimaced, shook his head. "Nobody in Cross Plains thinks I amount to much. So I am proud to show these sons of bitches that a successful writer drove a thousand miles to hell and gone out of his way to see me." 
This left me gaping and puzzled. Considering the readership he reached, acceptance in what was just another of many nondescript Texas towns was no great matter. Furthermore, the man rated more than he seemed to realize. There was friendly greetings all along the way to the barber shop where I'd have my first hair-cut in a long while. 
On our way home, I learned that Bob neither smoked nor drank hard liquor. He explained, "The lowest bastard I know in a number of fairy sized counties goes for whiskey and tobacco, so to show my contempt for him and all his breed of stinkers, I turn down drinking and smoking." The dark, stern face brightened in a grin and a chuckle. Then, "She, I know I am inconsistent. That low down skunk breaths, and so do I. Sometimes you've got to compromise in matters of principle."

Friday, August 3, 2018

A Recipe for Clay-Roasted Suckling Damn-Beast, by John Ringo

Posted (without permission) because this little recipe from John Ringo is getting hard to find these days:

A Recipe for Clay-Roasted Suckling Damn-Beast
by John Ringo
Short Story published in March 2001 (scifidimensions)
[This story may contain language objectionable to some readers.]

The following is a recipe for "Clay-Roasted Suckling Damn-Beast", a delicacy of the planet Marduk.
We would like to thank Sergeant Adib Julian for his helpful suggestions and tips on preparing this appetizing dish.

And this is just one of the hundreds of useful recipes in Interplanetary Fanny's New Book: "Intergalactic Cooking for the Mom on the Go!" (Elease March 3428 AD, JB5Clone Publishing Enterprises).

Follow these steps for a delightful meal!

Step One:

Since these are fiercely guarded by one or the other of the mated pair of damn-beasts, this is, naturally, the hardest part. The second hardest part is finding a damn-beast den. The dens are commonly found in rocky upland areas, but are occasionally found in holes beneath mature faux-teak trees. Whether they are beneath faux-teak or in rocky outcroppings, mature dens will only be found on or near hilltops that are out of reach of Marduk's notorious floods. The openings are relatively small for such a large carnivore, but the damn-beast can flatten itself oblately - and so must the damn-beast hunter.

Placing a group of guards outside the den, a single person, after removing his or her battle armor, can normally worm his or her way into the entrance. It requires a person who is not overlarge or heavyset and fundamentally unafraid of confined spaces.

Remember that the damn-beast is heavily armored in the frontal quarters. Since this is the only part our intrepid hunter is going to see, it is imperative that a high quality weapon be toted into the burrow. Although one might prefer a plasma rifle, there are countervailing arguments (you can't fit it in the burrow, it will kill and torch the kits you're planning on eating, the blast will probably bring down the roof and even if it doesn't the back-blast in that confined space will surely kill you).It is recommended that you use a bead pistol with armor piercing rounds. If such a weapon or ammunition is unavailable, the traditional Mardukan weapon of choice is an assegai, a short spear. However, uhmmm, Mardukans generally don't fit in the burrows so it's not so much traditional as what they would use - if they were stupid enough to try it and could fit in the burrow.

Burrow tunnels are normally 20-30 meters in length, about a meter and a half wide and a half meter high. They will have two to three twists in them and at least one "gooseneck" to catch runoff from Marduk's notorious rains. Note that the gooseneck will often contain standing water, but the intrepid hunter should be able to duck through it and get to air on the other side.

These burrows exist because the damn-beast is a natural prey of the HOLY-SHIT! beast. All items relating to preparation of Roast Suckling Damn-Beast can be used for Roast Suckling HOLY-SHIT! beast. However, the hunter is reminded that the HOLY-SHIT! beast is seven times the size of the damn-beast. Dress appropriately

Passing through these obstacles our hunter should shortly thereafter encounter the defending parent damn-beast. Remember, the damn-beast has no vulnerabilities on the front end. If using an automatic weapon, long, wildly uncontrolled bursts are the way to go. You won't have much time, so putting as many armor piercing rounds as possible on target is the only way to be around to write your own article. Care and decorum are not keynote words for the few seconds between "What's that smell?" and "Oh, THANK GOD that's over!"

If you're using an assegai...drop me a note afterwards, will you? Not before, though. I'm required by Imperial Law to report suicide attempts.

Having dispatched the defending parent you will have to make your way past the carcass. Since it will more or less block the opening to the den, I leave the method up to the discretion of the hunter. (In my case, let me say two words: Big. Knife.).

After this you will have reached the horrible little bastards you are after. By this time they will be feeding on their deceased parent, snapping at you and generally making a real pain-in-the-ass of themselves. You can't kill the little bastards, (though if you ever try this, and succeed, you will understand my lack of kindness towards these horrible little snapping-turtle m*&^%$#@$%^&g bastards) because the cook wants them "as fresh as possible". (The stupid m*&^%$#@%^&r. See him trying this?)

Proceed to pick them up and put them in the sack you brought... Look, if you just brought these instructions with you and didn't read it in advance it's not my fault you didn't bring a sack! Proceed to...oh, I already said that. And I suppose you forgot really thick, leather or synth-armor gloves, right? Well, if you did, you're in trouble. These little c*&^%$#@%rs can BITE.

Once you have them in the sack, you are more or less done. Well, except for turning around (I did mention this requires a small person, right? Right?) and crawling back through the, you know, the debris. Dragging a sack. Full of screaming, clawing little m*&^%$#@cking demons. But you're more or less done. With step one.

Step two: Kill the little c*&^%$#@%rs.
The cook will probably want to do this him (or her) self until he (or she) tries it with one. And he (or she) will go on and on about not disturbing them and proper bleeding, etc.
Grab your gloves. Take a big cleaver...

Step Three:
Let the cook skin them. The scum gets all over your hands and stinks to high heaven. You already took a couple of showers and a bath to get momma off of you and you don't need to take a couple of more.

Step Four:
Stuff with barley rice and Mardukan taters. If the barley rice is seasoned with jcsauce, it adds piquancy. (Piquancy here refers to the fact that jcsauce is slightly hotter than pure capsicum.)

Step Five:
Wrap in leaves (fire-tree leaves if available) and cover with a thick coating of wet clay. Cook in hot fire and maintain fire while cooking. Serve whole on a bed of barley rice surrounded by sliced kangoes.

Tastes like frog-legs.

Sgt. Adib Julian
Bronze Battalion (Prince Roger's Elite)
Empress Own
Empire of Man

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Rats Spread...

Earlier, I recalled how Hugo the Rat ripped off his writers. Unfortunately, I have to share the same about the far more beloved Weird Tales.

E. Hoffman Price, in his The Book of the Dead, shared a conversation between Price and Robert Howard's father, Dr. I. M. Howard, in April 1934:
"[Farnsworth Wright] and [William Sprenger] and the rest of those sons of bitches are no dealing rightly with Robert. How are they treating you?" 
"Doctor, we are all getting screwed. No one is discriminating against Bob. Business really is bad, damn bad. Well...yes sir, Wright and Sprenger are getting their pay checks regularly." 
"Then why don't those bastards see that you and Robert get paid regularly," he demanded. 
Dr. I. M. Howard's bedside manner was superb: a patient would be afraid not to recover.
"Editors and business managers walk out if they're not paid. Writer who don't do likewise aren't showing good judgement. Bob has a lot of good markets. All I have is crime stuff. When I get into a few other fields, I am through with Weird Tales.
A good many year after this dialog, I learned from an employee of the bank which had handled W. T. funds from the beginning and on until another outfit bought the magazine, that the publisher had money by the ream. The outfit had always pleaded poverty, and had found "The Great Depression" a handy device to exploit writers who could not, or fancied that they could not write salable yarns for any other than W.T. I learned from another source that when R.E.H. died, the "Unique Magazine" owed him $1300. It is only fair to add that the most W.T. owned me at any time was never in excess of $300. This peak was achieved only because of a two-parter, and a short. They were not favoring me. When their indebtedness reached a certain point, they got no more scripts from me. My production went to cash customers. Belatedly, Howard, on his own initiative, adopted the same approach.
While Weird Tales' chiseling did not reach to the same six-figure extent as Hugo Gernsback, Wright and Sprenger stiffed a close friend and occasional editor for the magazine in Price. No wonder many writers tried to break through into the more lucrative slicks.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Tales from The Book of the Dead: A. Merritt and Edmond Hamilton

A story of A. Merritt and Edmond Hamilton, from E. Hoffman Price's The Book of the Dead:
A. Merritt's stories influenced many a beginner, and a certain number of careless professionals. Although such yarns could hardly be called pastiches, a form which Lovecraft worshippers have used as a shortcut to fame, there was progress in that direction. A. Merritt, however, regarded such bunglers with good humor. 
Picking up such a magazine in which such a story appeared, he would grin sourly, spit out the window, and say, "Mmm...not a great it is not without Merritt." 
At a convention, one of the members of a circle of sensitive-sincere-artistic-literary writers and would-be writers took the floor and denounced A. Merritt as "just another hack." This was too much for ordinarily amiable and easy going [Edmond] Hamilton. He took command and told the gathering a thing or two. 
"A hack is a writer who hires himself out for any kind of literary work. A literary drudge. A poor writer. 
"Are you by chance quoting one of the sincere artists who consider that anyone who earns a living by writing is a hack? Are you forgetting that one of your literary heros makes his living revising the slop cooked up by worse writers? That's the lowest sort of hack work! 
"Whether not a man is a poor writer is a matter of taste, and maybe A. Merrit is a poor writer. I'd not argue that with you. But let's get to literary drudge, one of the dictionary definitions. A. Merritt's salary is $60,000 a year. Whenever he does a yarn for Argosy, or other pulp, he's losing money. If you have to squawk about hacks, which most of us are, including a lot of self-styled literary folks, why not know what you're talking about before you sound off?" 
Applause, and no further mention of hacks at that con.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Blue Slime Fantasy

In the late 1970s, the surging popularity of both J. R. R. Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons fueled an increased appetite in fantasy novels. Publishers scrambled to meet this demand, buying up a number of derivative stories that congealed into Tolkien and D&D pastiche. This increasingly self-referencing sub-genre of fantasy was derided as “extruded fantasy product,” or, more commonly, pink slime. During this time, the tabletop game replaced the magazine as the primary means of experiencing fantasy. Many a fantasy work since can trace its origins to a role-playing campaign that the writer either ran or played in years prior. In the forty years since that fantasy explosion, gamers have shifted from the tabletop to first the console, and then the online video game. This change in the medium of fantasy has brought about a change in the conventions and stories in fantasy, incorporating many of the gaming mechanics into literary adventures. In Japan, this new set of expectations, settings, and tropes can be called Blue Slime fantasy.
The pink vs. blue divide has been used before to indicate the audience of what sex a story is intended for. Here, Blue Slime is intended not just to contrast with the earlier term, but also to pay homage to to the mascot of Dragon Quest, one of the video games that inspires the genre. And slimes are everywhere in the bestiaries of Blue Slime fantasy. What sets Blue Slime fantasy apart from other fantasies is that a Blue Slime fantasy is a video game-inspired story taking place in a pseudo-European setting, centered around a party of heroes taking quests from a guild, using  the leveling, health, magic, class, combat, dungeon, and reward mechanics found in games such as Dragon Quest and .hack (pronounced “dot Hack”). While many of these stories, such as Sword Art Online and Overlord, can take place in a virtual game world set in the near future, these tropes have been extended to the non-video game fantasy worlds of the isekai genre, as can be seen in ArifuretaKonosuba, and In Another World with My Smartphone, where adventurers still carry cards displaying their level, class, combat stats, HP, and MP. While some of the adventures have a resemblance to cyberpunk such as Otherland and Snow Crash, the “punk” has been replaced by an often too-self-aware gamer and other more mundane concerns. But whether online, in another world, or in a galaxy far, far away, the video game influence pervades all Blue Slime fantasy.
Less known in the West than Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest is a legendary RPG franchise stretching back over thirty years, filled with recurring elements, including its mascot, the Blue Slime. While each game follows a similar story in that a hero and his party must set out to defeat a powerful evil monster, the first three games are notable for their story of how the descendants of an isekai hero must destroy recurring ancient evils. The third, Dragon Quest III, or Dragon Warrior III in the United States, was quickly adapted into light novels, anime, and manga. This novelization provided an early adaptation of video games, setting standards for how to express a video game world into prose. Fortunately, the second-person choose-your-own-adventure format did not last, as other methods of reader immersion into the video game world gained favor. But many other aspects of Dragon Quest III continue into fiction even today, such as now ubiquitous leveling conventions, HP and MP systems; adventurers’ guilds, non-combat classes such as merchants, monster types including the ever-popular slime, and even party makeup. For instance, Konosuba’s band of idiot adventurers fall into the classic Hero, Soldier, Priest, and Wizard party of Dragon Quest III instead of the iconic Western quartet of Fighter, Thief, Priest, and Wizard.
While the Dragon Quest series provides the mechanics for Blue Slime fantasy, the .hack multimedia franchise provides inspiration for the society. In a story encompassing console games, anime, manga, and novels, .hack explored the game world and real world mysteries of The World, a popular immersive virtual reality MMO game. Somewhere along the way, likely in .hack//Legend of the Twilight, the franchise shifted from transhuman cyberpunk themes to the idea of what living would be like in a video game world. And it is that distortion, life in a video game world, that fills Blue Slime stories. In an attempt to raise the stakes of a game from simple reset and defeat, litRPG fantasies will often use punishing logout penalties and technological traps to force the game out of the online worlds, including permanent death of both the character and the player. This puts emphasis on society and relationships not necessarily found in the guilds and factions of Western MMOs such as World of Warcraft. So the characters build real life structures in the video world, typically in a pseudo-European fantasy setting and form. This also drives an attitude of dread towards player-vs-player combat, with “player-killers” being treated as sadistic madmen and outcasts. The audience for .hack and Blue Slime stories do not encounter the “I’m going to hop on my main and call a few buddies for revenge” attitude towards world PvP common to many MMOs. Finally, The World and its Blue Slime analogues are subject to the whims of god-like outside forces that can shape reality in the game, whether rogue programmers, uplifted AI, or hackers. Isekaiversions of Blue Slime fantasy follow the same strictures, keeping the mechanics, the societies, and the interfering gods, but ditch any pretense of a game in their new worlds, providing a seamless transition since there is no functional difference in story between immersive VR and physical travel to a new world.
Also present in the episodic nature of Blue Slime fantasy is the narrative structure of kishotenketsu, an exploration of consequence rather than conflict. Originally developed in Chinese four-line poetry, the kishotenketsu form was adopted by narrative story and even formal academic essay. For those familiar with Japanese visual culture, the 4-komaor four panel comic strip, represents the most familiar application of kishotenketsu structure to Western eyes. Whether argument or gag strip, the story is divided up into four parts:
The introduction: The characters, setting, and situation are introduced.
The development: Themes and events in the introduction are built upon and developed in more depth.
The twist/complication: An unexpected event illuminates everything that happened before in a new light.
The conclusion: Not only does this wrap up the dilemma of the story, it explores the consequences of the twist.
This allows a story to be told without the overt conflicts inherent to Western structures, most of which originate in Classical Greek theater. This doesn’t mean that the story does not have conflict. Just watch one of Chang Cheh’s Venom Mob film to see conflict in kishotenketsu. But the conflict is not built into the structure of the story like in Western works. Instead, it becomes part of the milieu for episodic adventures. And just as a three-act writer will string together multiple try-fail cycles in a story, many light novels and Chinese films stack multiple kishotenketsu cycles together into one story. Sometimes, in inexperienced hands, this leads to wild shifts in tone and a fascination with new developments as the lack of conflict as an engine of plot leaves the story to the winds of the moment. Also, in Brian Niemeier’s recent exploration of the form, he points out that “You can see how cultural differences between East and West come through in each culture’s preferred storytelling methods. Kishōtenketsu emphasizes developing a cast of characters over focusing on an individual protagonist. The Eastern approach is also more concerned with reconciling the story’s events to the status quo ante.” This emphasis on ensemble and status quo lends itself to romantic tension, or much more likely in Blue Slime fantasy, the hijinks of a harem of female orbiters floating around an indecisive male lead.
So why spend so much time on what at first glance appears to be solely a Japanese genre? Not only are translations of light novels hitting American shelves in droves, thanks to Yen Press, J-Novel Club, and other publishers, these light novels are selling, including Blue Slime, battle academies, and science fiction high schools. Many light novels remain in the top 1% of Amazon sales years after their initial publication in English. And thanks to the recurring cycle of adaptations taking light novels to manga and anime and games, Blue Slime fantasies have a multimedia reach greater than most American science fiction and fantasy novels, and, in manga form, are quickly supplanting comics. Not only does the growing audience inherent to these light novels matter, but the influence in fantasy can be felt in other genres as well. The rise of the litRPG over the past few years has been fueled by writers emulating Sword Art Online and other episodic .hack style light novels, creating Sanderson-style hard magic systems using a palette of RPG mechanics spanning traditional tabletop, Blue Slime RPG, and Western video games such as Skyrim. And despite cyberpunk and the transhumanism stories filling American science fiction, these writers chose the familiar fantasies of gaming instead. Isekai is returning as well, following the otherworldly patterns of GateOutbreak Company, and other Japanese cross-dimensional tales instead of such classics as A Princess of MarsThe Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and Nine Princes in Amber. And the less said about the harem and reverse-harem fad flooding science fiction and fantasy, the better. But despite the broad sweep of Blue Slime, it is not replacing familiar genres of English-language fantasy, but cross-pollinating with them, bringing a healthy shot of adventure that is often sorely needed in American science fiction and fantasy.
And, most importantly, a wider audience.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Razorfist on Solomon Kane

Once again, Razorfist graces us with a multi-media survey of a great pulp hero: Robert E. Howard's dour Puritan, Solomon Kane.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Light Novel Prose and Translations

Light novels have been a source of conversation among the PulpRev this summer, and not always for the best. Even as one of the most enthusiastic advocates for these foreign descendants of pulp, I have to admit that most don't aspire to the literary heights of a Bakemonogatari. In truth, all too many are shovelware, and the prose shows. But many middle quality stories and way too many aspiring literary light novels are just as painful to read.

I've read a couple dozen light novels this summer, with most placing a damper on my enthusiasm for the medium.  From a prose perspective, reading light novels has been an exercise in what doesn't work in English rather than examples of good writing.

I've suspected for a while that Japanese translation, while recovering from a love of 2000s animu jargon, still remains on the sentence level. And something this simple affects the reading experience. For instance, several years ago, I considered editing a fan translation of A Certain Magical Index, but quickly decided against it as the English version was functionally unreadable. Worse than George Lucas's "You can write this, but no one would say this." It lacked any semblance of flow of ideas or language. Yen Press's recent release of the same title, however, is readable as an English work. So I'm a bit more sensitive to the effect a translation has on a story. And regardless of the translator, I'm seeing the same issues.

It is way too common to find long stretches of tagless dialogue--and I already know the tricks used there to keep track of characters in the original language, da ze. But I'm also seeing what might be called deconstructed paragraphs, where the thoughts that would be one English paragraph are spread out among many. And I see the same issues in the most formulaic isekai as I do in the more literary occult detective stories. Something is being lost in translation.

To reinforce this, let's turn to the author's comments at the end of Invaders of the Rokujouma #9, by Takehaya.
While working on this volume, I had something on my mind. And that was regarding translation. As of writing this, there are two foreign versions of Invaders of the Rokujouma!?, a Taiwanese version and a Korean version. There’s been talk of a third one, but these were the two I was thinking of. 
In Japanese, we can distinguish the characters based on how they refer to themselves. Here’s a list of how it generally works out.
Ore = Koutarou
Atashi = Sanae
Warawa = Theia
Watashi = Yurika
Waga = Kiriha
Watakushi = Ruth
Oira = The Haniwas
On top of this, the characters can be differentiated by what they’re saying and their tone. When it’s all taken together, dialogue tags to label the speaker aren’t necessary.  
But a question popped into my mind the other day. How would this work in another language? Take English, for example. In English, all subjects refer to themselves as “I.” As a result, Sanae, the haniwas, and everyone else would all talk about themselves the same way. It would be impossible to distinguish them based on pronouns.  
Moreover, there aren’t as many linguistic distinctions between genders and social groups as there are in Japanese. While that kind of thing could be conveyed through body language and such in person, it’s much harder to do with just words. I think that’s one of the reasons people speak using such colorful language in English novels.  
But this isn’t about which language is superior. It’s just a difference in how we communicate. To someone who speaks English, Japanese must look like an incredibly inefficient language, trying to convey everything through words rather than using expressions and body language.
Takehaya. Invaders of the Rokujouma!?: Volume 9 (Kindle Locations 2363-2376). J-Novel Club. Kindle Edition. 
The emphases are mine. Here we see Takehaya understand a fundamental difference between Japanese and English; that one language can freely avoid the dialogue tags the other so desperately needs. Translation at the sentence level misses this, while an idea or a composition level translation would be more sensitive to what is required for an English speaker to understand the ideas.

Now, a proper idea translation isn't going to turn In Another World with My Smartphone into the Divine Comedy--or even Harry Potter or the Destroyer. However, if it is acceptable for scholars to write prose translations of the epic poetry of Dante, it should also be acceptable to put the occasional "he said/she said/I said" into the dialogue and reorder sentences and paragraph for better readability in English.

Until readability is a consideration in Japanese translation, light novels will continue to be negative examples for grammar and paragraph structure.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Lives of Harry Lime: Operation Music Box

Since Razorfist's recent video on The Third Man, I've been taken with the old radio drama, The Lives of Harry Lime:

"That was the shot that killed Harry Lime. He died in a sewer beneath Vienna, as those of you know who saw the movie The Third Man. Yes, that was the end of Harry Lime. But it was not the beginning. No, he had many lives. And I can tell you about all of them. How?

"Because my name is Harry Lime."

Monday, July 16, 2018

A Second Look at Kishotenketsu

While it may be pushing it to call 2018 the Summer of Light Novels for Pulp Rev folk, the conversations around this outgrowth of the pulps have sparked a critical examination of these works. While most suffer from poor translations and a lack of craftsmanship, a rough charm remains, enough that several techniques are being explored. The main one is the story structure of Kishōtenketsu, which has entered the conversation through the usual Western appeal: a story without conflict. I discussed it earlier at this blog, but Brian Niemeier presents a new look at this unusual form:
Let’s start with the word itself. It’s made up of the names of the four different acts of the structure:

Ki : Introduction 
Shō : Development 
Ten : Twist (complication)  
Ketsu : Conclusion (reconciliation) 
The first act is self explanatory. It’s where we’re introduced to the story and we get to know the characters taking part and the world they live in. 
Similarly, the second act also doesn’t require much explanation. This is where we get to know the characters a little better. We learn about their relation to each other and their place in the world. This is where we develop an emotional connection to the characters. 
The third act however, the twist, is where things get a bit complicated. I’ve seen this act referred to as complication, and while I don’t think that’s technically correct, I feel it’s a better name. Calling it a twist brings with it associations to plot-twists as we know them from more traditional western narratives. 
This isn’t necessarily the case here. It can be, but it doesn’t have to. However, it’s often something unexpected, and usually unrelated to what’s happened in the first two acts. 
Finally, the fourth act is about the impact of the third act on the first two acts. This is why I like the term reconciliation. The third act will affect the situation presented in the first and second act, and in the fourth act the state of the world in first and second act is reconciled with the events of the the third.You can see how cultural differences between East and West come through in each culture's preferred storytelling methods. 
Kishōtenketsu emphasizes developing a cast of characters over focusing on an individual protagonist. The Eastern approach is also more concerned with reconciling the story's events to the status quo ante.
There're a couple observations to add.

As Brian says, and much to many a post-modernist critic's disgust, this doesn't mean that the story does not have conflict. Just watch a Shaw Brothers kung fu film to see evidence of conflict in kishotenketsu. But the conflict is not built into the structure of the story like in Western works. Instead, it becomes part of the milieu for episodic adventures. And just as a three-act writer will string together multiple try-fail cycles in a story, many light novels and Chinese films combine multiple kishotenketsu cycles together into one story. It takes clever plotting to do this without feeling aimless or disconnecting from lore, as can be seen in the faults of several xian'xia tales and light novels. 

The strengths Brian describes and the weaknesses together are key components to the style of fiction I call Blue Slime Fantasy, which uses Dragon Quest and MMOs for inspiration. In Western circles, Blue Slime is a key driver in the glut of litRPGs and harem fantasies. But more on that later.

Finally, let's give credit where credit is due. Kishotenketsu, despite the Japanese name, is a Chinese invention with roots in that nation's poetry and rhetoric. That we have comes to know it by the Japanese word is an example of how Western cultures tend to gravitate to japonisme over chinoiserie. Take one belle, call her Meiling one day, and Misuzu the next, and it will be the girl in the kimono who gathers all the attention. But despite the origin, kishotenketsu is part of a system of thought that does not come naturally to Western culture.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

John C. Wright's Roger Zelazny Recommendations

I suggest that if you like the family infighting, larger-than-life superhumans, and intrigue, you read yourself some Roger Zelazny’s deservedly famed Amber series. It is a delight: a film noir detective tale (starring my personal favorite character, an amnesiac), which morphs into a fantasy and a Jacobin-style revenge drama.
The Merlin books take place in the same background, but they are terrible. Avoid.
Of his work, I recommend LORD OF LIGHT as his best.
Check out Wright's site to see the full list, which covers some of Zelazny's lesser-known works.