Tuesday, June 30, 2020

I never knew it was this bad

I never knew it was this bad.

Sure, declining sales have been on the lips of every critic of the SSF Titanic's course for the past decade--and many of the passengers of science fiction, too. And writers have bemoaned the apathy for short fiction along the way.

So, yes, things are bad for science fiction short story magazines. Out on the edges, titles have shorter runs than the fly-by-night pulps. Fire sales of back issues before closings are not uncommon. Amazing was saved from a failed Kickstarter by an angel investor writing checks in excess of $10,000. More than one small press has gone out of business thanks to repeated flirtations with short fiction. And the recent Weird Tales revival just...vanished. The old names don't have the drawing power they used to, and the new names are stuck between not-taking enough risks and taking too many in a field that is glutted with supply but not demand.

It's not the short story. The indie shared universe mega-series make mone selling anthologies and even fanfic anthologies to their fans.

Still, in my ignorance, I thought things were bad by pulp standards, where 50,000 in circulation was average, 100,000 was good, and 35,000 was the lean years. Anything below that, and the magazine would be set aside for one that covered the current fad in short fiction. And, given that I've come across anecdotal statements that placed Asimov's and Analog at around 85,000 in the 1980s, I assumed that the same standard still applied.

Given the declining audiences in just about every entertainment media, this was a lazy assumption on my part.

No science fiction magazine currently has a circulation higher than 20,000. To pick one example, Fantasy & Science Fiction has gone from 60,000 to 6,000 in 80 years.

Many of the "cool and forward-thinking" are lucky to get 5,000 or even 3,000.

And the market here has been floundering for a while, as 2009 figures show. Certainly, a precipitous drop from the 1980s.

The market is contracting, without signs of stopping, from at least the mid-2000s generational handover. Digital and its different margins have likely kept some of these magazines in business far longer than print runs can justify. This has also allowed many smaller magazines to thrive in niches as a sort of underground to the underground. But the overall scene is still shrinking, and there is no prestige, no coolness to short fiction in a time where tens of thousands and more devour teenagers' first fanfiction short stories. If there was, the magazines would be growing, not managing their decline

It's almost to the point where the established science fiction "fandom" does not and should not be the audience. There are 300 million people not reading science fiction short stories. The editor who can figure out how to reach even 0.0001% of that will be the king of science fiction.

Where's science fiction's Dana White?

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Dungeon Core Fantasy

As literary RPGs have demonstrated lasting power in the turbulent mix that is publishing, authors have taken the idea of novelizing immersive gameplay and applied it in new ways. Most litRPGs take up the story of adventurers clearing out dungeons for profit and story progression, describing the adventurers’ growth and skills along the way. But what if the dungeon was the protagonist instead of the adventurers?
It’s an idea that’s been done before in games. Dungeon Keeper, the Dungeons series, and Evil Genius have taken the mechanics of empire building games and crossed them with real-time strategy gameplay to create a tongue-in-cheek genre where evil overlords map out cunning and cruel traps inside dungeon to protect their loot from waves of raiding heroes. But something unusual happened on the way from darkly humorous gaming to popular novels.
The intellect guiding the dungeon’s growth was no longer humorously and sadistically evil. Instead, it became crystallized into an item called a dungeon core; its growth now dependent upon the adventurers braving its depths. Cull too many too quickly, and powerful adventurers will smash the core. But provide a suitable challenge and pick off the careless and the inept, and both the adventurers and the dungeon core prosper. This has resulted in a shift away from satirical evil to what might be the coziest of fantasy genres.
For such a new genre, the formula is already established. A person dies under mysterious and violent circumstances, usually connected to the evil plaguing the world. That person then wakes up as a crystal dungeon core under the tutelage of a fairy assistant. The fairy gives a tutorial of the books mechanics and acts as a sounding board as the dungeon core carves out his dungeon.
On the surface, a local finds the entry to the dungeon and tells the local adventurer’s guild. The guild tests the dungeon, who is only saved from destruction by offering a rare treasure. Afterward, the guild offers money, power, and adventurer training to the local, who soon becomes the dungeon core’s favorite. The intrusion of dark dealings from beyond the county’s borders forces the dungeon and the local into a working relationship to clear all the threats affecting the dungeon and the town that sprung up around it–including the inevitable return of the evil that ended the dungeon core’s earlier life.
While the formula is common, the dungeon core novels differentiate themselves with different mechanics and themes. One might be made out of bones, another may use an elemental theme, and yet another will choose an Eastern xianxia cultivation approach to monsters, magic, and tombs of not-quite horrors. In this regard, the dungeon core story is similar to the golden age cozy mystery.  The same thing may happen in every book (a dungeon or a murder), but the author presents a new puzzle for the reader to play along with in each.
Focusing on a game with the readers has caused the dungeon core story to develop in similar ways to the cozy mystery. Romance is non-existent in many, and rarely proceeds beyond puppy love when present. Thus dungeon core fantasies offer a distinct alternative to the harem fantasies that share the marketplace. The puzzle of progression leaves little time for such distractions. And the puzzle forces each writer to bring something new and novel to the tale. After all, when the players, the beginning, and the end are known, the only way an author can distinguish himself is through the journey. The coziness is also helped by a more accessibly named set of characters–John, Cal, and Steve rather than Kalladin, Kvothe, and Yyrkoon.
That’s not to say the dungeon core genre is not without its weaknesses. Like most progression fantasy, these stories are exposition-heavy, with many pauses to the action and the intrigue to level up, explain new mechanics, and hollow out new rooms. Most of the stories tend to walk a fine tightrope between exposition and plot, but navel-gazing and plot-derailment does happen. For that, it’s best to skip ahead a couple pages.
The dungeon core is also limited to a single location. After all, a hole in the ground does not move. While this can make for excellent small-stakes and local conflicts, the genre has yet to figure out what to do when the immediate challenges are mastered. Attempts to shift into more conventional epic fantasy plots have been mixed at best, as the dungeon core has to wait for the world-shattering threat to come to it, rather than seek it out. And epic fantasy heroes are driven by the need to address what happens beyond the borders of their sleepy little towns, while dungeon cores must concern themselves with the administration of said towns. While a lot of experimentation is underway, no one’s figured out how to satisfyingly extend a dungeon core story beyond the natural conclusion of its local dominance.
Finally, the dungeon core is a new genre, and while authors are experimenting with tropes, settings, and systems, there are a lot of dead ends. Attempts to shift the idea to new settings and genres, such as outer space, inner space, and science fiction, have yet to take hold. In part, this is because magical mana, as a resource, does not exist in name or kind in these settings. Neither do many of fantasy’s conventions find analogues in other genres. In general, the genre works best the closer it remains to its Dungeon Keeper fantasy roots. That hasn’t stopped authors from branching out, though.
For those willing to brave the genre’s depths, treasures abound. Johnathan Smidt’s Bone Dungeon is the purest version of the dungeon core formula done well. Dakota Krout’s Divine Dungeon series reduces the exposition burden of gamey mechanics by relying on Chinese xianxia magic to fuel his characters’ and dungeons’ growth. Johnathan Brooks’ The Crafter’s Dungeon offers a rare female dungeon core, with different motivations than found with the males. And James Hunter and eden Hudson collaborate on Rogue Dungeon, which solves some of the problems of the genre by returning to its Dungeon Keeper roots.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Curse of the Golden Skull

First published in The Howard Collector, Spring 1967, "The Curse of the Golden Skull", by Robert E. Howard, resembles a prose poem in the same vein as Clark Ashton Smith's "Chinoiserie". While there is a narrative thread throughout the short story, it does not, at first glance, map to conventional dramatic structure. The three sections, "The Curse of the Golden Skull", "The Emerald Interlude", and "The Orchids of Death" obscure the structure.

The first section deals with the prehistoric perils of an ancient and now doomed magician:
How strange it seemed, that he, Rotath of the Moonstone and the Asphodel, sorcerer and magician, should be gasping out his breath on the marble floor, a victim to that most material of threats -- keen pointed sword in a sinewy hand.
Rotath spends his dying moment cursing the gods that allowed him to die. As their dark servants come for him, this sorcerer casts one last desperate and spiteful spell that changes his body, one that he hopes will wreak havoc across the ages.

In the "Emerald Interlude", the ages pass:
Years stretched into centuries, centuries became ages. The green oceans rose and wrote an epic poem in emerald and the rhythm thereof was terrible. Thrones toppled and silver trumpets fell silent forever. The races of men passed as smoke drifts from the breast of a summer. The roaring jade green seas engulfed the lands and all mountains sank, even the highest mountain of Lemuria.
That's the entire interlude, a descriptive section filled with as much tumult and cataclysmic action as can be fit into 64 words. And, in its way, it's emblematic of the entire "The Curse of the Golden Skull". Howard comes out swinging with his descriptions and fills the story with the struggle of the fight. The Jeffro Johnson test for covers (have people busy with action instead of standing around looking cool) applies here. And this is just the contemplative section denoting that the time is passing.

The final section, "The Orchids of Death", picks up with an unnamed adventurer discovering the skull and skeleton of gold:
What long dead artisan had shaped the thing with such incredible skill? He bent closer, noting the rounded ball-and-socket of the joints, the slight depressions on flat surfaces where muscles had been attached. And he started as the stupendous truth was borne upon him.
The adventurer, of course, is doomed. But is it from the curse or from natural causes? Like most short stories of the era, it all hinges on a twist at the end, a terrible denouement that alters everything that has come before.

 The sections and the uneven lengths obscure the dramatic structure present.  The first line immediately thrusts a problem upon Rotath. 600 words in, almost the exact center of the story, Rotath attempts his spiteful defiance, the turning point for the story. And in the last lines, we learn whether or not his dying action succeeded. This follows the conventional five-act dramatic structure, albeit with an abbreviated introduction and denouement, and without acts. And Howard's conflict-filled prose is well suited for drama, even if ages fly past in mere lines.

"The Curse of the Golden Skull" was a happy little discovery nestled deep in the lines of a search engine. As such, it is a delightfully harrowing read that rewards the critical eye's scrutiny. For, like a good house, the construction is as sound as the facade is beautiful.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Nikolai Dante: Too Cool to Kill

“I was trained in the arts of war by the finest military commanders in the empire.”
“And I learned to fight in the sleaziest bars of the thieves’ world. Let’s get it on!”

In 1997, Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser introduced the readers of the 2000 AD comics anthology to a future where Russia never had its revolution and the Tsar’s power stretches not just over all the Earth but across the stars. There, just as now, an underworld flourishes in the shadow of the corrupt and debauched oligarchs. There, in the collision between the gangsters of the underworld and the gangsters of the nobility, flourishes the self professed man Too Cool to Kill.
Nikolai Dante.
Captured by the Tsar after seducing an imperial courtesan, Nikolai is given a choice between losing his skin or investigating a crash. Dante wisely chooses the latter, but lands in even hotter water when a Romanov Weapons Crest bonds with him. The Tsar wants the secret of the Crest, the Romanovs want the Crest back, and two other families just want him dead for honor’s sake. Only fast talking, fighting, and even faster running let Nikolai Dante keep his head when everyone else wants to take it from his shoulders.
This first volume of ten showcases seven stories. “The Adventures of Nikolai Dante” bonds Dante with his Weapons Crest. “The Romanov Dynasty” has him earn his place among his new family. “Moscow Duellists” introduces Nikolai to the cutthroat world of the Russian court, while “The Gentleman Thief” shows that his new station in life has not affected Dante. “The Gulag Apocalyptic” reveals the terrible secret behind the Romanov Weapons Crest while uniting Dante with his iconic rifle. The less said about the short “Russia’s Greatest Love Machine” and “The Full Dante”, the better.
The art of Nikolai Dante: Too Cool to Kill varies based on the artist. Simon Fraser has the definitive art for this, giving Dante the disarming charisma needed to give a dashing rogue that two second opening to dash away. The other artists in the volume have a tendency to forget the handsome part to a handsome rogue, and the glamour that should accompany him. It is fortunate that most of the other artists pick up the short fan-service one shots.
What remains consistent is the use of seven or more panels per page. Nikolai’s exploits in escape, fighting, and amore require more space to properly depict. The Russian rogue loves to leap, fly, and fall, after all. The extra panels are almost required to fit the high-flying action in the limited pages allotted in a 2000 AD programme. As a result, even the shortest five page one-shot delivers as much story as can normally be found in twice the page count.
If there is an annoyance to Nikolai Dante, it lies in just how fanservice filled the book can get. Sure, this seducer’s story oozes with dĂ©shabillĂ© and nudity, although one can find more flesh in even the tamest peekaboo high school manga. What rankles, however, is how dated and pop-culture-laden the dialogue gets. The clever one liners of the swashbucklers that inspired Nikolai Dante are replaced by 90s song lyrics, cheerleader chants, and jeers at Bill Clinton’s White House scandal. And those more familiar with 2000 AD than I have pointed out the cameos and crossovers. These already threadbare references date the otherwise timeless anachronisms of a Russia that should never come to pass.
So, is Nikolai Dante indeed a man too cool to kill? Let’s be fair, this bastard son of the Romanovs believes his own boasts, and Morrison and Fraser delight in throwing Dante into situations where his mouth writes checks he cannot possibly cash. But Nikolai proves he can live up to his boast that he can out-drink, out-fight, and out-love any man around him. And that’s fine for slums and bars of the underworld. But the halls of power demand more.
Along with bioblades and a battle computer, the Weapons Crest gives Nikolai Dante the wealth and position of a Romanov son. With it, he becomes a pawn in the power games of his previously unknown father Dimitri Romanov and the Tsar. Absolute power corrupts absolutely in this Russia, and both men spill blood, even family blood, as though it was wine. Quick reflexes and quicker wits are not enough when pitted against the best assassins the galaxy can offer–especially when they are kin with the matching cheat codes that are the Weapons Crests.
What sets the dashing rogue apart from the blood-drunk degenerates that are the rest of his family is motive. Heroism in Dante’s world is a matter of honor and power. Nikolai Dante cares little for either. Empathy be damned. Both the Romanovs and the Tsar feel your pain–and want more of it. Honor and power grind most of the serfs of the Russian worlds under the Tsar’s heel. Instead, Nikolai acts out of compassion. Another’s tears may compel Dante to acts of defiance against the powers-that-be–warlords, thugs, and Romanovs alike–that cause ripples throughout the Russian space empire.
The wounds of Dante’s past, still unrevealed, provoke a rarity almost unknown among the powerful–selfless service. And that, indeed, makes Nikolai Dante too cool to kill.
Just remember, he will never be a plaster saint.

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Avenger, The Lady, and The Wheel

One of the delights in reading the pulps is being able to trace various sources of inspiration, such as Manly Wade Wellman's wild west plots or C. L. Moore's use of the Gothic poisoned garden. Some of these inspirations are more direct and well-known. The Secret Six millionaires who funded the fight against Al Capone resurfaced in Amusement, Inc. The Shadow and Doc Savage both drew heavily on the adventures of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, most recently of The Lost City of Z fame.

I recently came across another direct pulp inspiration in another media. Inside the pages of Hitchcock, by Francis Truffaut, the famed suspense director Alfred Hitchcock is interviewed about many of the movies in his career. One in particular sounded familiar, 1938's The Lady Vanishes, the film that brought Hollywood's attention to Hitchcock. From Wikipedia:
"The film is about a beautiful English tourist travelling by train in continental Europe who discovers that her elderly travelling companion seems to have disappeared from the train. After her fellow passengers deny ever having seen the elderly lady, the young woman is helped by a young musicologist, the two proceeding to search the train for clues to the old lady's disappearance."
Swap the train for a plane, the elderly lady for a wife and daughter, the menacing spy ring for the mob, and the young woman for a Doc Savage style adventurer, and you have the origin story for 1939's The Avenger, as Richard Henry Benson's adventures begin when his wife and daughter vanished mid-flight from the seats next to his. Everyone thinks Benson is insane, with a brain flu that tells him he has family not his own. The shock turning Benson's skin and hair a steel gray is a unique touch though.

Hitchcock's movie is drawn from the 1936 book by Ethel Lina White, The Wheel Spins, but he indicates that there might be an earlier source:
The whole thing started with an ancient yarn about an old lady who travels to Paris with her daughter in 1880. They go to a hotel and there the mother is taken ill. They call a doctor, and after looking her over, he has a private talk with the hotel manager. Then he tells the girl that her mother needs a certain kind of medicine, and they send her to the other end of Paris in a horse-drawn cab. Four hours later she gets back to the hotel and says, “How is my mother?” and the manager says, “What mother? We don’t know you. Who are you?” She says, “My mother’s in room so and so.” They take her up to the room, which is occupied by new lodgers; everything is different, including the furniture and the wallpaper.
It’s supposed to be a true story, and the key to the whole puzzle is that it took place during the great Paris exposition, in the year the Eiffel Tower was completed. Anyway, the women had come from India, and the doctor discovered that the mother had bubonic plague. So it occurred to him that if the news got around, it would drive the crowds who had come for the exposition away from Paris.
The criminality and spycraft is distinctly White's addition to the story, and the close parallels to The Wheel Spins and The Lady Vanishes suggest that Lester Dent, Walter Gibson, or Paul Ernst was familiar with either the book or the movie. However, Gibson also drew heavily on French influences for The Shadow, so it would not be a surprise to find out that he drew on the Paris version of the story to help create The Avenger. The real answer might be hidden within the Street & Smith archives.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Manly Wade Wellman: A View From 1940

2004's Pulp Fictioneers, a collection of Writer's Digest columns reprinted by John Locke, contains a wonderful little essay on the state of science fiction by Amazing Stories editor Jerry K. Westerfield. Entitled "The Sky's No Limit", Westerfield's January 1940 column gives rare circulation figures, a who's who of pre-Campbelline science fiction (Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Taine, Abraham Merrit, and Ralph Milne Farley), advice to the would-be science fiction writer that sounds might familiar to the isekai light novel fan, and even an overly charitable explanation of the Michelist controversy of the first WorldCon. (Westerfield notes that most of fandom resented the intrusion of Michelist politics.)

Westerfield also spent a few paragraphs to describe Amazing's top writers. Number one was Eando (Otto) Binder, now best known as Supergirl's creator and the writer of many of Captain Marvel's best adventures. (That's DC's Shazam!, not the much embattled Marvel character.)

Number two, however, was a surprise:
Manly Wade Wellman runs Binder a close second by pounding out some 200,000 words of science fiction a year which amounts to $2,000. Like Binder, Wellman loves science fiction and makes it his specialty. He gets some of his plots from our old-time wild west, revamps the location to that of a savage planet, and presto he has a science fiction yarn. Wellman, a former newspaper reporter, got his first taste of science fiction when he wrote a propaganda story in which he pictured Martians as friends instead of enemies. The yarn brought him such a large letter response that Wellman has been doing pseudo science yarns ever since. He feels that most science fiction writers don't put forth their best efforts and most of their stuff is dine too hurriedly--including some of his own work.
It is a bit bizarre to see Wellman treated as a science fiction writer, given that he is now best known for his Weird Tales and John the Balladeer stories. But Wellman was able to earn a year's pay from Amazing alone, one comparable to the many junior scientists and engineers reading science fiction pulps at the time. The eagle-eyed reader will recognize Wellman's science fiction plotting technique as the same the Wellman's friend David Drake uses in the Royal Cinnabar Navy series, although Drake prefers to use classical history instead of the wild west.

Also of interest is Westerfield's hobbyist writers, which includes such notables as E. E. Smith, Abraham Merrit, L. Sprague de Camp, and Ralph Milne Farley. Although hobbyist might be too much a diminishment of these men's second careers. None was reliant on writing for their primary source of income.

It is easy to view with perfect hindsight the authors of the past. Columns like Westerfield's allow a clearer glimpse into what a writer's contemporaries thought at the time, as well as give hints to now forgotten writers of merit.