Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Big Pile of Books: Long Time Ago ....

With this entry I am at the end of big pile of books the end of my desk. In the process, however, in the process I've come across books that I've had lying around, meaning to talk about for some time, and books that I've meant to finish so they earn their place at the end of the desk. But those will be a different kettle of fish (or perhaps multiple kettles).

Defining a Galaxy: Celebrating 30 Years of Roleplaying in a Galaxy Far, Far, Away, by Bill Slavicsek, published by Owen K.C.Stephens/Rogue Genius Games, 2018

Provenance: Gift of the author. Bill Slavicsek was a co-worker at TSR, my boss at Wizards of the Coast, and he and his Lovely Bride, Michelle, come visit every Thanksgiving.

Review: A lot of the attention of  recent "gaming history" has been, naturally, about Dungeons & Dragons, and there are a number of good books out on that subject. This one is on an equally intriguing subject, in that it covers one of the great early licenses in our hobby - the Star Wars RPG from West End Games.

There have been three tabletop RPGs about Star Wars - the West End version in 1987, The Wizards of the Coast version in 2000, and Fantasy Flight version in 2012. I contributed to the WotC version. Bill worked on both the West End and WotC incarnations, and it is the West End version that is very important to how games are developed and how licensed properties are turned in to RPG. In particular, Bill goes into detail on the nature of lateral development.

By 1987, the original trilogy of movies was done. There was talk of more, but no definite plans. There had been a few original novels (a trilogy on Han Solo, A trilogy on Lando, Splinter of the Mind's Eye (since retconned out)), some animated cartoons, and a Christmas Special that had been shown once, then buried. The Marvel comics had a good run but were winding down. West End Games had a lot of stuff from the movies, but very little hard facts about the universe behind it. What was the Kessel Run? Who were all those aliens in the bar? How did the Force work?

This is where West End, and Bill in particular came in, creating the connective tissue and background for the universe. Using what was there to build the support scaffolding for it. In a movie, you can just show a bunch of driods - no one from the audience has the chance to question who they are. Not so in an RPG. The various aliens had names "Hammerhead" and "Squid Head", names used in the toys. Bill christened them Ithorians and Quarrens, and gave them home worlds and characters. In doing so, Bill developed the depth of the universe, not giving you new stuff, but developing the material that was there. Lateral development was a requirement for transitioning between film and the tabletop.

And it stuck. These creations became foundational for the expanding Expanded Universe (now called Legendary. Novels were based on the information presented. The backstories have been accepted as canon. And while changes occurred as new movies and television shows were created this material became core reference for the universe in a variety of media.

And it is kind of cool for Bill to see something that he had created 30 years ago get a name-check in a new project. It is also cool for us to see the process behind the scenes that helped create this expanded universe. Bill's style is open and conversational, a befits a memoir. He's telling stories about his time at West End, and the creative magic that they made there.

Interested? The book can be picked up on Amazon, or here.

More later,

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Big Pile of Books: Oy, Robot

I have a big pile of books at the end of my desk, and in writing all these up, I realize that I've done this before. Not reviewing this particular pile of books, but of summarizing all my book reviews for a year in one series of posts. I did it in December of 2015, and it will likely be five more years before I try this again.

But let's talk about Murderbots:

All Systems Red by Martha Wells, 2017, Tor Books
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells, 2018, Tor Books
Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells, 2018, Tor Books
Exit Strategy by Martha Wells, 2018, Tor Books

Provenance: The first one of this five-book series (the last one comes out later this year) was highly regarded in a lot of SF sites that I cruise. I tracked it down IRL (a difficult thing, it turned out - everyone had the later books, but not the first one), and agreed it was worthwhile. I asked the Lovely Bride for them as Christmas present last year, and she ordered the other three from Amazon. Philistine.

Review: I have warmed up to novellas. My younger incarnation that devoured SF digest-sized magazines found them large and cumbersome in the face of short stories, while the middle-aged reader-self bought in on the "measuring fantasy by the pound" school, and found them slight. Yet time and again in my dotage I am comfortable with the mid-length form - enough detail to engage, but not too light, and don't mind them at all.

Such is the case of the Murderbot Diaries. If lumped together they may seem a bit repetitive, but as individual stories, they are really quite charming. The murderbot is our narrator, who makes Johannes Cabal look positively sunny in his outlook. Our murderbot is also more competent than Cabal in his job, which is to keep the fleshbags he has been entrusted to protect alive despite their best efforts at self-destruction.

The murderbot is a construct of flesh and metal. It is not a cyborg, in that it did not have a previous life. It is a made, sentient, thing, the flesh grown around the metal plates, its programming tightly bridled by an internal governor. Except the murderbot has bypassed it governor and has free will. Which it wants to use primarily to watch pirated VR shows and do the absolute least amount of work.

The murderbot is geared towards self-preservation, not in a "kill all the humans" sort of way, but in a "lay low and let them ignore me" kinda way. It works, sometimes. And when it doesn't, he is roused to action to protect his assigned humans. He doesn't think much of them. He doesn't think much of most of his universe - Lesser AIs are dullards. More powerful AIs are threats. Corporations, with their ruthless pursuit of the bottom line, he hates.

The humans working with him (who he goes back to help when they're in trouble) don't get it. He's not a pet. He's not an oppressed form of human. He's pretty much sure about what he wants, which is to be left alone. He is a positive, well-rounded, humane, sentient, alien creature who is absolutely NOT fascinated with the humans around him. And that makes him interesting, even appealing.

Four of the five parts of the Murderbot Diaries are out now, and the last one is due sometime this year.

More later,


Monday, January 06, 2020

Big Pile of Books: When in Rome

I have a large pile of books at the end of my desk, accumulated over the course of the year and now demanding reviews. But I'm surprised that I have only one historical non-fiction text among them. That can't be right.


Well, it is, in that much of my nonfiction has been taken up with a single volume: The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II, which I will not be talking about here because, well, I am not finished with it. But has been the long-haul book for lengthy trips away from the home base. Instead, let me talk about this one:

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela, translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti, Europa Editions, 2009

Provenance: I thought I had gotten this text from a friend, but a sticker on the back identifies it clearly as a denizen of Half-Price books, where overstocks go to die. The local Half-Price has carried a lot of good general histories, and this is one. Its appearance feels to me like it more European that Amercian - softbound trade with folding end-flaps, and is pretty substantial.

Review: I started reading this in preparation of running a Cthulhu Invictus game, which is Call of Cthulhu set in the Roman Empire. In addition, I've been reading SPQR by Mary Beard, which gives me larger view of the entire setting (and is really good, but, again, will not review until I finish it, which may be some time).

As a side benefit, after finishing the book, the Lovely Bride and I were invited to Lucca Comics and Games as guests, and spent the week before in Naples/Napoli. So we got to tour Pompeii, Paestum, and Herculaneum with a extremely knowledgeable guide (highly recommended - she's really good) and this book was valuable as preparatory work.

Day in the Life gives me a lot of thought about how to fit in the small bits of life and times for the characters who I may be throwing around in the midst of Romanic Cthulhu adventures.

Here's an obvious one - night is dark but not empty. I know it is a shock, but in our modern times, unless we are way the hell away from everything, we still have some ambient light. Rome didn't/couldn't do that. So they were to a great degree hostages to daylight, and evolved their situations accordingly. Yet the darkness is also a time for deliveries of food and supplies to the city, when the streets are (relatively) empty of the rest of the citizenry.

Another important one - the vast majority of the population were camping. Yep, we know about the layouts of the Roman villas, (And can identify vomitoriums, impluviums, and shrines to house gods on sight), but most of the working class had small tight quarters in tall buildings, which got worse as you went up (the opposite of penthouses in the elevator-assisted modern age). Not a lot of amenities, not a lot of privacy. A lot of rent-paying squatters.

This is obvious stuff when you think about it. Rome had a strong civic and public life in part because of a lack of personal, private space. The did have food kiosks (open-sided restaurants to get a quick meal), and did have running water (the baths, which were social centers for business and schmoozing). Other parts do feel alien, and I need to think about them more when incorporating them into any type of campaign.

The conceit of the book is traveling through a single day, pressing through the city to the a gladiatorial contest and then to a banquet (the laying on couches thing). Angela puts together a nice, solid narrative which carried through the translation. If you want to get a nice general text on Roman life (or what we think Roman life was like), here you go.

More later,

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Big Pile of Books: Lovecrafting

Have I mentioned I have a big pile of books on the end of my desk? Yeah, I have a big pile of books at the end of my desk. Here are some reviews;

Johannes Cabal: the Fear Institute, by Jonathan L. Howard, Thomas Dunne Books, 2011

Provenance: A friend lent me the audio version of Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day, a collection of short stories featuring a particularly sardonic,erudite, and irritated necromancer who keeps having things get in the way of his quest for eternal life. They were fun, and when I was in New York last year I picked up a copy of The Fear Institute at the Strand (a highly-recommended bookstore, but I will give the edge to Powell's in Portland).

Review: What attracted me to this particular book (as opposed to others in the series) was the fact it was set in Lovecraft's Dreamlands. The Dreamlands were mostly part of Lovecraft's work in poetry, where he is influenced by Lord Dunsany, and is the more fantastic setting of his mythos. A lot of the same players and characters fit in, but it the Dreamlands are more aesthetic than horrific, which causes some interesting interplay between his view of this world and the land of Dreams.

Other authors have played in this space, so it is interesting to see how this other Howard takes it on.

And it's all right. The writing is solid and engaging, and has the proper level of bounce and snap. But I think I like the other authors' take on Lovecraft's fantasy world better. This adventure really doesn't need to be in the Dreamlands, and could be in Oz or the Forgotten Realms save for a couple solid name-checks. Cabal's sardonic commentary applies to fantasy worlds in general as opposed to prying up the underlying nature of Lovecraft's universe. There is a dualogy between Lovecraft's worlds - his Dreamlands tend to more romantic, awe-inspired, and positive, while his mythos works set in our world tend to be more horrific, nihilistic, and terrible. Both settings have living gods, but those gods are more active in the Dreamlands and the characters who toil in their shadows more empowered.

Anyway, the plot. Cabal is hired by a trio of individuals who intend to go to the Dreamlands and defeat Fear, Fear being the worst bane of human civilization. Despite himself, Cabal goes along as the official guide. There are adventures with Zoogs and Men of Leng, and I think he really nails the Men of Leng for the first time that I've read. The amusingly selfish Cabal verges on being heroic because of the nature of the universe he is cast in. Elder gods are confronted. Time paradoxes are invoked. It wraps up with a strong lead into the NEXT volume.

It's OK. Cabal as reluctant hero gets him away from him from merely whining about his state, and reasons are given as things progress. But I don't get the feel of the Dreamlands from this tome in the same fashion as I did the other versions. Howard doesn't add to the mythos (again, with the exception of the Men of Leng), but instead it functions as a mostly-understood backdrop for Cabal's ongoing frustrations with reality, both his own and that of alternate planes.

Its worth a read, and in the proper hands, would be good series on NetFlix. But it remains OK.

More later,

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Big Pile of Books: This Means Woah!

I continue to have a lot of books on my desk. They are mostly fiction, and I am reviewing them in part to get my thoughts down and freeing myself to eventually passing on to others. This one will wait, only because it is part of a series that has yet to conclude:

The Will to Battle by Ada Palamer, TOR books, 2017

Provenance: Purchased at the Elliot Bay book company, which is no longer on Elliot Bay but has moved up to the Cap Hill area. I did not intend to purchase it or review it, this being book three of a four-book set, but I enjoyed the first two very much and took it home and devoured it as well. Spoilers, I should warn, abound.

Review: This is Terra Ignota Book III. Books I and II, which I talk about here, are pretty much one volume were this a trilogy. Book III in this case is the saddle booth. We laid out the world and chased the protagonists up a tree in Books I and II. Book IV we will/may see the resolution. Book III is keeping all the balls in the air and laying the groundwork for the finish (I hope).

The story so far: We are 450 years in the future and the future is falling apart. The utopia that has persisted for a long peace has been revealed to be the result of traffic control assassins who use massive data at their fingertips to identify targets and remove them through "accidents". The population of the earth, broken up into Hives of common interests and philosophies as opposed to nations, are jockeying for position. The young mutant (?) with the ability to modify reality is dead, his chosen toy soldier and heir transformed into Achilles, a warrior in a world that has not seen traditional war for ages. Oh, and God is here. Not our God, but a God supposedly from somewhere else, invited here and incarnated with connections to all the ruling hives. Said visiting God will break apart the world and remake it into something that would not rely on secret assassins to survive. Everyone just needs to surrender and let him do it. And the question of if that is a good thing or not drives the world to brink of war.

And in this we have Mycroft Canner, who I have previously called the Necessary Man, who has contacts with all the factions and the ability to be where he needs to be to record the major decisions. Except Mycroft himself, like the world, is coming apart. The unreliable narrator is even more unreliable, as we see him have conversations with dead comrades, dead philosophers, and oftimes the reader themselves. How trustworthy his observations are remain up in the air.

The book is dense is its style and every character packs a half-dozen other titles and names (thank the gods for Dramatis Persona listing at the front to give one some clues) and it works. Saddle books often are marking time before resolving the issues, but this one has the task of getting a supposedly rational, clear-eyed population geared up for war, with tools they have left rusting for generations. The players don't seem to have the optimisms that has accompanies so many of our "modern" conflicts - the confidence that this will be over by Christmas that evaporates under the thunder of the first artillery strike. But they do seem naive about what this means in a society that become borderless in many ways, where the factions are easily identified by self-chosen uniforms. It will be a war like no other.

And I'm looking forward to it. Having chased this future utopia up a tree, and thrown rocks at it, I am curious if Palmer (and her characters) can then get it down. Will humanity, and its leaders, and its gods and godly visitors, have to shed their cool, thoughtful approaches for the savagery of conflict, a savagery once embraced by Mycroft Canner as being the component of humanity that evaporated over the long enforced peace.

The last bit of the story won't be out until 2021, so it rests here for the moment. I look forward to coming back to the complex, often convoluted world, and see what happens.

More later,


Friday, January 03, 2020

Big Pile of Books: Mysteries

I have a lot of paperback mysteries on my desk. Their slender format (much less than your typical doorstop of a fantasy novel) makes them very portable for plane flights. Also, I've been laid up recently with minor surgery, as a result taking tub baths, and dropping a paperback in the tub is less damaging than submerging your iPad. There were two big categories for mysteries this year:

NERO WOLFE
Gambit by Rex Stout - Bantam Books, originally published in 1962
The Mother Hunt by Rex Stout - Bantam Books, originally published in 1963
The Black Mountain by Rex Stout  - Bantam Books, originally published in 1954
Before Midnight by Rex Stout  - Bantam Books, originally published in 1955
Where There's A Will by Rex Stout - Avon Books, originally published in 1940
Please Pass The Guilt by Rex Stout - Viking Press (Hardback), originally published in 1975
Three At Wolfe's Door (collection) by Rex Stout  - Bantam Books, originally published in 1960
Trouble in Triplicate (collection) by Rex Stout  - Bantam Books, originally published in 1949
Death Times Three (collection) by Rex Stout - Bantam Books, originally published in 1985

Provenance: Various, including a number of used bookstores. Most of the Half-Price breed won't carry something this old and usually worn, but there is a store up in the Cap Hill area, Twice Told Tales, which is well-stocked with cats in abundance, mysteries in general and Nero Wolfe in particular.

Review: I've talked about the Nero Wolfe books before, and am now treating them as a limited resource, to be husbanded and read only when trapped on a plane or in a bathtub. As you can see, I've spent a good chunk of time on planes and in bathtubs this past year. There are only so many original stories lefgt, since the author passed on in 1975, and while they have found another writer to pick up the character, it is not the same (One later-day book I picked up had the first line "It all started at Lilly Rowan's Superbowl party." I can't tell you what the second line was because I put the book back down and called in the HazMat team).

Pretty much everything I said before still holds - the titular Wolfe is a fat (only 10 lbs heavier than I am nowadays), lazy, brilliant detective, kept from a complete state of inertia by his smart, wiseguy, well-grounded assistant, Archie Goodwin (who narrates, so he may be a bit prejudiced in this regard). Clients are usually dictated by the state of the bank balance for keeping their New York brownstone going, or by personal connections with the pair. Wolfe does not tolerate a large number of things - fools, leaving the brownstone, hugs, handshakes, violating his personal time raising orchids, letting a woman stay in the house - and inevitably one of more of those things must be tolerated in the course of the mystery. There are usually dead bodies involved, and there is often an increasing death count as the days progress in the course of a case.

The thing is, the mystery isn't the core of the story. Stout generally plays fair in his mysteries, and gives the reader enough suspicion as to whodunnit and why, but since he traps us in Archie's brain, we often find out when Archie does, but know only that Wolfe is off dealing with other agents and opportunities as we follow Archie around. The mysteries usually wrap within two pages of the end of the books itself -"The Murderer was X. Then we had a perfectly adequate dinner. The end"). That feels a little rushed, but once the murder is solved, there is not much point hanging about.

Except the attraction of these books is the writing as opposed to the clever mechanism of the crime or the brilliant solution. In writing this entry up I had to leaf through them to remind myself WHO the guilty party actually was in many cases. In Archie, Stout has a perfect, engaging, heroic narrator, who manages to charm his way both through the book and with the reader. Wolfe is tolerable only because he comes to us through Archie's lens and with archie's approval. Stout did some additional books with another detective - Tecumseh Fox (yeah, there's a pattern in the names), but they don't land as solidly without Archie's presence.

The collections are akin to the novels, but more concentrated, and reflect the mechanism of delivery for these stories. They appeared in other media (once upon a time, there were weekly print magazines with names like Liberty and The Saturday Evening Post, that would print fiction on pulverized dead trees), but are collected together, usually three to a volume to make up word count. Given their shorter nature, you get a better idea from the start where the tip-off is that indicates the guilty party. But they are still solid.The most recent one on the list, Death Times Three, is posthumous, and contains earlier published drafts that were later changed, expanded, or sent elsewhere, and is a good study for those interested in seeing how stories evolved.

The exception the expected pattern of Nero Wolfe mysteries, the one that tests the rule,is The Black Mountain, which is recommended even if you are not a mystery fan. Here the pair leave New York City, and the United States entirely, to find the killer of the owner of Wolfe's favorite restaurant. The pair's journey takes them to Montenegro, Wolfe's home country, and lacks the cosmopolitan vibe, huge cast of suspects, familiar support characters, and unbreakable personal flaws of the other books. And it does it in a fashion that does not undercut the nature of the characters themselves.

I recommend all of them, but if you're digging up old Wolfe books, be sure to catch The Black Mountain.

But hang on, there's more:

MAIGRET
Maigret on the Riviera by George Simenon, translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury, HBJ Books, originally published in 1940
Maigret Goes Home by George Simenon, translated by Robert Baldick, HBJ Books, originally published in 1931
Maigret and the Reluctant Witness by George Simenon, translated by Daphne Woodward HBJ Books, originally published in 1959

Provenance: Re-gifted from a friend. Will re-gift them in turn.

Review: And sometimes it just doesn't work. Blame the translation, both in culture and in physical text, or the nature of the original source, but the Maigret books did not hold me, and I will be honest, I pressed forward only to see if they took an upturn, but in these three they did not.

Chief Inspector Maigret is a Parisian police detective. His work is mostly procedural. He walks around, talks to people, gathers evidence, and the books end in a confession and usually additional bloodshed. His work takes him into the sordid parts of peoples' lives.  He is overly reflective and introspective, and much of his dialogue is internal and filled with self-doubt. In Riveria he is a fish out of water on the sunny beaches, In Home he returns to his hometown, where few people are left that remember him and he feels like a fish out of water. In Reluctant Witness he is confronted with the fact that he is getting old and police procedures are changing on him and he feels ... well, you know.. In each case he spends much of the books cogitating on how much he does not fit in with his particular case. In fact, in Home, there is the "collection of suspects to reveal the murderer", and Maigret is not even the instigator, but rather a passive witness to the entire proceedings.

It could be a merely a cultural gap - Maigret is a very existential character, trapped in his own thoughts. But the result was a trio of books that, once read, I can let pass out of my life without any further regrets, without even an internal monologue.

More later,

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Big Pile of Books: Spooks

This past year, when I finished a book, I tended to put it on a pile on the end of my desk. Not always, but enough that now I have a lot of books piled up. And since I want to eventually clear off that side of the desk (for, um, more books), I have to either review it, shelve it, and/or give it away. For each book I mention the provenance - how it ended up in my hands.  Because even stories have stories. So here we go.

Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi, TOR books, 2018

Provenance: The Lovely Bride got me this book in hardback back in 2018, and it sat around for a few months until I got to it this year.  The author had gotten great reviews on The Quantum Thief (which I have not read), and the release of this book came in with that top-echelon push - reviews in the book section of the Seattle Times, mentions on NPR, the works.

Review: There's a lot going on in this book. The easiest way to describe the central conceit is to say that there is an afterlife, and it is British. Or rather the British Empire want to colonize it. When you die, and are properly prepared, you go to another plane made of semi-morphic, mutable material that responds to thought, akin some of the transitive planes in D&D or the the Mists in Guild Wars. The British set themselves up in the ruins of previous inhabitants of this zone and remodeled. In the afterlife, one is neither truly gone nor forgotten - they can communicate with the living, come visit through people willing to be possessed for the purpose, and provide insights, aura-reading, and rapid communications.

And it is all used for spycraft. It is 1938 and Germany is just ... gone, not just defeated in WWI but obliterated spiritually. The Great Powers are England and the Soviet Union, where Lenin never died but instead ascended into a godlike Presence that feeds off the spirits of his own dead. The Brits and Russians are playing their great game over the Spanish Civil War, with the English supporting Francos's Fascists. The British spies are split into rival agencies for the living and the dead. And the Brits have a mole leaking info to the Russians.

Rachel White is a low-level intelligence officer who suffers from the classism and sexism of the British system. She gets a lead on the mole, who is on the afterlife side - The Summer Court of the undead British Intelligence, who are literally spooks. We also get the mole's side of the story, and his actions as the two square off against each other, dealing with their own side's challenges and their personal tragedies in the process. There is a lot of cat-and-mouse as the two together reveal that there is something even nastier going on.

The plot moves swiftly and the characters are well-grounded. For all the things going on at once here, it hangs together. The world of Summerland is filled with familiar faces in different roles - Stalin's here. Lenin is a godlike present. Kim Philby and his comrades check in. The Prime Minister is a roman à clef version of H. G. Wells, which marries neatly the spiritualism and tech of his earlier eras.

There is a lot packed in on this relatively slender volume, and it has a lot of place I would want to back up and understand more about how things work and how we got to this point. Footnotes or annotations would be a plus, but undercut the entire point of the "blink and you'll miss it" writing style. It would be something that Stephen Moffat could turn into a decent series for the BBC. So pay attention, know some of your interwar history, and you will be rewarded.

More later,