Sunday, July 30, 2006

Big Old Pile of Books (Fictional Nonfiction Section)

So I started yesterday to dig through the big pile of books that have been sitting next to my office desk for about forever. It is down from mini-fort size to speedbump-size, and I am actually finding research texts that I swore were lost. This bunch is all nonfiction, but all deal with imaginary stuff, so go figure.

Dungeon Master for Dummies by Bill Slavicsek and Richard Baker.
Expecting a bunch of snarkiness, right? It's a "for Dummies" book, an easy target in the bookstore. And add to it that the title doesn't trip off the tongue (I guess it should be Dungeon Mastery for Dummies, but Dungeon Mastery isn't a registered trademark).

But I got this book because I wrote the foreword to it, after talking about it with Bill. I asked at the time, what can you say about DMing? Well, a lot. While the earlier D&D for Dummies book concentrated on the rules themselves, coming across as a simplified version of the Player's Handbook, this new volume is a lot more about the style of play - preparation, narative and play styles, tailoring your game to fit your players, and world and NPC-building. Pretty impressive stuff, actually, and worth a look even if you're an old crusty DM.

For Want of A Nail by Richard Sobel.
I really loved this book when I first read it in the early 70s, and I hunted it down in the present day to see if it still stood up. It is a scholarly work on an alternate history. Now, in our post-Turtledove world, alternate histories (where the South won the Civil War, or Lindburgh became president or Custer fought Little Big Horn with zeppelins) are now pretty common, back in the day they weren't, and a scholarly book (complete with footnotes and a bibliography) was a rarity.

Here's the short version - during the Revolutionary War, Burgoyne gets his reinforcements in time to win the Battle of Saratoga (he surrendered in our reality). The Hudson River is controlled by the Brits, New England is cut off, the Revolution fails, the rebel ringleaders are hung, and the surviving rebels make an exodus into what our world calls Texas, but they name Jefferson.

In this way two major nations are founded on the North American continent instead of three. The Confederation of North America wins dominion status from England, while Jefferon/Texas forms the driving force of the United States of Mexico. Both nations grow, argue, and spar in a history that runs through alternate world wars, development, and depression.

So how does it stand up, thirty-plus years later? Not bad, though the more I've learned about our neighbors' history the more I see that we are looking at an Expanded Canada and a Revised Mexico. The CNA is cool, bureaucratic, and mildly utopian - it has scandals. The USM is expansionistic, agressive, and tumultuous - it has revolutions.

What is interesting is that this dovetails in with an occupant on my abandoned book pile, The Cousins' War by Kevin Phillips (who wrote The Coming Republican Majority and its sequel See, I Was Right!) In his thunderous tome Phillips puts forward the idea that the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War were all the same war between the same general groups of people - Low-church reformers versus High-church aristos. Indeed, the CNA feels very much like his "Greater New England" (which runs across the north part of the country) and the USM has a lot in common with the "Greater South" (since renamed "Red State America"). I wonder if For Want of A Nail was on his reading pile as well (indeed, in his intro Phillips also pegs Saratoga as a turning point).

But all in all, For Want of a Nail is just as I remember it - a different creation, rigorously planned. The late Dr. Sobel was an economist, so his is an economic history, playing with planned growth in the CNA and a powerful, rebelious multinational in the USM. It would have been interested to see how he would have played with the Internet and the Energy Crisis if he had continued this, and with the potential of Climate Change in our modern era. Worth hunting down.

The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana by Jess Nevins.
This is a favorite book for "waiting-for-the-web-page-to-refresh" reading, a humungous (1000+ pages) collection of characters from 19th Century literature, including the founding figures of the fantasy, science fiction, western, and mystery genres. Familiar characters are here, like Hawkeye, Dracula, and Well's Time Traveler, as well as three versions of Sping-Heeled Jack, two bands of Martians, the dime novel versions of Edison as well as Jesse and Frank James, and the elephantine Steam House. In addition there are broad entries on Lady Detectives, Anarchists, and Future War novels, the last the precursors to the Clancy technothrillers.

Nevins gives each a summary, and then a modern examination of their books. He is affectionate but honest with the fiction of the era, and it is a browser's dream.

Nits? Sure. Looking for something in particular may be a chore, since the character you are looking for may be covered in another entry. And some of the cross-references are blind alleys. And a couple things I expected were not there, such as Dr. Syn (the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh) and Violet Strange, both early 20th Century figures, but still within the look and feel of the Victorian era (and indeed Violet Strange was a creation of Anna Katherine Green, whose other creations, Amelia Butterworth and Ebeneezer Gryce, are in the book).

All in all, this is an eye-opening read, and from a roleplaying standpoint, a great bit of source material. Any one of the plots described can be easily ported over to your local Call of Cthulhu campaign. and indeed, how can resist basing an adventure on something called The Vampire Bomb?

More later,