Picking at the bloated carcass of geek culture...occasionally!!!

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Perils of World Creation

In Books, Comics, Roleplaying Games, Science Fiction, Video Games on April 14, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Little know fact. The world is a large, complicated place with a lot going on in it. I contains many different cultures interacting in countless ways over vast amounts of time. Beyond the historical, sociological, or anthropological repercussions, there are tons of scientific and technological matters to think about. To even marginally understand our actual Earth, the one we actually live in, requires an ass-ton of research and years of disciplined learning. Right? So, imagine the problems that one runs into when he (or she…or it, I guess) tries to make up their own world. Whether it’s for a roleplaying game, a video game, a sci-fi story, a comic book, or a fantasy people, people are constantly trying to cobble whole worlds from nothing.

The problem with many creators is they do not understand how crazy hard this is. This is the one extreme. They know they like sword fights or dragons or robots or whatever so they make a simple little setting where these things can take place. The problem, however, is that these worlds feel artificial, so they people living in them also feel phonier than they should. They’re created as cheap backdrops and that is what they feel like.

On the other side, there is what I consider my problem. I become kind of obsessed with the details. Maybe it’s because of my love of history. I love history but I’m hardly an expert…at all. Because history is vast and complicated. But even worse is science. If you don’t understand geography, you can’t make a realistic map. If you don’t know weapons are used or battles are fought, you can’t portray war with any semblance of believability. How can you speculate on future technology if you don’t understand technology today? This is what ties me up. I could be making a simple superhero roleplaying campaign or a lighthearted comic, but I need to understand how the world fits together. So I get lost in tying up the infinite loose ends instead of creating the world I need.

So…is there a happy medium. I know some very creative types read this blog so I’m curious on how you people deal with this. How do you avoid the pitfalls of creating worlds.

Are you proud of this genre?

In Books on April 7, 2010 at 2:14 pm

“I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.” – Kurt Vonnegut

I find it funny how science fiction is treated in American mainstream society. When I say science fiction, I mean not only hard sci-fi, but fantasy, horror, space opera, etc. It is common for people to look down on sci-fi aficionados, yet it is really more popular than ever. People, and not geek people, but actual citizens love their Star Wars, Harry Potter, Twilight, True Blood, Lord of the Rings and Lost. But this love rarely translates into an assessment of the genre’s quality or worth. To many science fiction is entertainment, pure and simple. Many wouldn’t consider Tron high art, but merely a simple and often childish diversion. There are many exceptions, such as the esteem that many hold Tolkien, but stories of robots, aliens, or wizards are not for the upper-crust or the media elite.

This is even more true in the world of literature. Reading books is often considered a higher, cerebral level of media experience, so it is even more cutthroat in terms of creating marginalized genres. You need not read a word to know you are in the horror, romance, or science fiction section of a bookstore. The garish cover designs demonstrate the level of esteem that a publisher holds for it audience. As an audience, however, we must show that cheesy illustration or quasi-futuristic typefaces work, because they keep giving it to us.

On the other hand, I feel like a lot of modern writers or publishers try too hard to be take seriously as literature. How a story about wizards and monstrous orc-like antagonists go out of their way to get Junot Diaz quotes (like Joe Abercrombie) or go for slick, non-traditional sci-fi cover designs (like China Mieville). I instinctively wonder: “Are these guys too good for their genre?” Why are they courting the approval of people whom snub their noses at them? Or do they just want their novels to look like grown-up books.

Does this like a work of steampunk fiction, with steam-powered cyborgs, anthropomorphic bird people, or giant moths that feed on psychic energy? You wouldn't think so.

So I wish science fiction was respected for the important and imaginative genre that it is. How it defines how we, as a society, understand the concept of a hero or how its mythologizes our past or how it defines the direction of our future. Yet sometimes I find its best examples try to say: “No, no. We’re not that crappy science fiction. We’re actually good!” I wonder if it lowers the esteem of genre fiction as a whole. Or does it, with its piles of worthless, derivative trash, deserve to be bashed? And what a surprise, I’m not sure.

Larry Elmore revisited

In Books, Roleplaying Games on September 2, 2009 at 9:44 pm

I’ve been lightly re-reading the Dragonlance: Legends series recently.  I’ve been on a fantasy kick recently and just finished Joe Abercrombie’s excellent yet somber First Rule series.  I’m in need of some light, junk-food reading while I’m student teaching.  Something familiar and pleasant but not something that will suck me in.  I haven’t read the Legend series in quite a while so…why not?  Okay, I feel like I am apologizing a bit for such a adolescent pick, but whatever.  I find the prose has suffered a bit and I’m not exactly digging the character interaction as much as Chronicles, but it’s doing its job of entertaining me just fine.  Looking at the books, however, has made me re-examine the work of Larry Elmore, the artist of the original Dragonlance novels and all-around TSR company man.

Elmore was my first favorite fantasy artist.  When I was younger than ten, I remember looking at my older cousin’s Dragon Magazine.  It has a weird color comic by David Trampier called Wormy about a cigar-smoking Dragon and his efforts to play wargames in peace away from the annoying adventures always messing with him.  It was awesome but I was more drawn to a black-and-white serialized comic called Snarf’s Quest, a comedic adventure about a long-eared, snouted warrior-in-exile, his robot sidekick, a hot warrior love interest, and a surprisingly relatable brain leech.  It was by Larry Elmore and I loved the hell out of it.

My brother had this collected edition years ago.  I wonder if it holds up.

My brother had this collected edition years ago. I wonder if it holds up.

But Elmore continued to impress me as I got into Dragonlance.  I found that his work blew away anything Jeff Easley or Keith Parkinson did for the world.  His portrayal of the characters was what I thought they looked like at the time.  The faces of his figures were unique and were instantly recognizable for me.  Though I question some of his design choices, such as the scantily clad Caramon and Tika on the Dragons of Spring Dawining, I still have a very soft spot in my heart for that fantasy art, cheesy as it may be.  Elmore changed his style through the 90s and into the new century.  I can’t put my finger on it.  Maybe I’m older and more critical of new stuff, while still looking at the old stuff through the eyes of an eleven-year-old.

I guess pants were not in-style in Krynn during the War of the Lance.  But I suppose bedazzling leather, collarbone armor was.

I guess pants were not in-style in Krynn during the War of the Lance. But I suppose bedazzling leather, collarbone armor was.

I’m trying to look at his work (and not just these amusing examples) with the harder, sarcastic sensibility that I have developed in the last twenty years.  It’s not really working.  I have no desire to undo those positive feelings.  I wonder do any of you have cheesy shit from your early adolescence that you are unable to tear down.   I’m tired so that will be all for now.

The First Law

In Books on August 24, 2009 at 1:02 pm

I just finished re-reading The Song of Ice and Fire series, in response to all the casting going on for the potential HBO series.  You can read about that on George R.R.’s website over here if you are interested in that.  I’m sure I will have a discussion on the casting  sometime soon.  Upon finishing the books, however, I wanted to read more fantasy fiction but didn’t know where to turn.  I wanted something pretty easy and fun but not overly simple or stupid.  I was considering going back to Glen Cook’s Black Company series or Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen, as both had provided some gritty, non-Tolkien fantasy in the past.  Yet, I had gotten stuck on the second book of each of those series, making me wonder if they were the books for me.  I enjoyed them but found myself not completely drawn in for inexplicable reasons.  I had read some of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series but was pretty disappointed with it.  So, I went online for some recommendations and started hearing the name Joe Abercrombie come up.  With really nothing to lose, I picked up The Blade Itself, the first book in The First Law series.

Now, I am hooked.

This book is so violent, it beat up the image file for the cover.

This book is so violent, it beat up the image file for the cover.

It takes place in a world that I find similar to Robert E. Howard’s Hyborean setting.  Not because they are alike, however, but because they take advantage of our understanding of real-world geography to take shortcuts in world description.  When there is a nation in the north of the Union called Angland that can only be reached by crossing water, you get an idea of what you’re working with.  It’s a mash-up of different cultures, time periods, and levels of technology with a unique view on magic and the supernatural.  Calling it high magic or low magic would not accurately describe the setting, either.  I could go on about the setting or the world creation and so on, but that is not what makes these books so much fun.

First, and foremost, it’s the characters.  This Joe Abercrombie can write some damn good characters.  He is excellent at getting inside the heads of various people, giving each a unique voice and perspective.  They’re smart and believable, often thinking and saying exactly the right thing.  Often in fantasy, I find the language to be a weird combination of modern language coupled with oddly inserted Shakespearean English to create a false sense of, I don’t, medievalness?  Abercrombie makes the language feel natural and real.  He changes perspective a lot, so we get to view each character from the others’ points of views.  After a book and a half in this series, I am a huge fan of a handful of characters.  Colonel West, Superior Glotka, Dogman, and, of course, Logen Ninefingers.  Man, I love those guys.

Secondly, the action is maybe the best I have ever read.  It’s gritty and brutal but never excessive or gratuitous.  Well, maybe sometimes but I’m not complaining.  The thing I like the most about it is that even the best fighters get all kinds of fucked up.  I feel like after every fight seen, the characters look (and feel) like John McClane  at the end of Die Hard with a touch of Martin Riggs after getting tortured by Al Leong.  Throw in a little Indy post-truck scene and you get the idea.  Most of the characters are somewhat martial, as they need to be to remain characters in these books.  They are extremely vulnerable and real, and I keep waiting for someone I love (going back to my first point) have something terrible happen to them.

I could go on but, as I wrote, I’m still not done.  So I could write some more or I could go read.  Sorry, that’s not much of a choice.

The magical and inconsistant world of Harry Potter

In Books, Movies on July 30, 2009 at 9:46 pm

A few years ago, my wife was first exposed to Harry Potter in the form of one of the movies.  Probably the third or fourth, which were much better than the first two Chris Columbus snooze-fests.  She was pretty entertained but had an odd criticism.  “I don’t like the wands,” she said.  She thought, if I’m remembering correctly, that in a world of such high magic, wizards should not need little phallus devices to work their mojo and that their presence diminished the coolness of Rowling’s magical world.  It was not something that ever had bothered me, until I started thinking about J.K.’s take on the use of magic in this world.

First, there is the wand shit.  Wizards seem to be pretty worthless without wands.  Disarming a wizard seems to be a good way to render them helpless.  Also, usually wands require  some kind of verbal trigger, often in some Latinish phrase, to do its thing.  So, this is how magic works…except when it doesn’t.  For instance, potential wizard folk are discovered among the non-magical people (Muggles to those Muggles out there.  Yes, I hate myself) by the fact that they can sometimes make the inexplicable happen.  So, these untrained losers can work magic without wands.  Like when Harry makes the glass disappear at the zoo and makes Roast Beefy fall into the snake pit.  No wand or pseudo-dead language necessary.  Also, in the course of the books and movies, Dumbledore and the like sometimes cast with no verbal, material, or somatic components.  So which is it?  Do you need the wand or not?  Or does the wand allow more predictable control and precision?  Whatever.

Another example is the fucking brooms.  These are personal flying devices that allow even the most inexperienced wizards to zoom around at will.  So, of course these are used all the time to help deal with the many dangers Harry and company deal with all the time.  No, wait.  These magical and wonderful device are used almost exclusively for one of the dumbest, most ill-conceived games ever invented, involving rings, bats, and three types of balls zooming around an oval soccer pitch.  Yeah, that makes sense.  If I were a wizard, I’d be riding that fucking broom to get from my couch to the fridge.  Walking is for suckers.

Can anyone think of a better use for an amazing personal flying machine.  How about... ANYTHING?!?

Can anyone think of a better use for an amazing personal flying machine. How about... ANYTHING?!?

And finally, let’s get to wizard fighting.  It usually consists of wizards whipping little spells at each other while the other kinda parries them, knocks them away, or dodges them.  Occasionally, some magic words are muttered to paralyze or disarm or whatever, but it usually consists of people magicking at each other as I described.  I would have liked to have seen Hermione smuggle a handgun from her Dad’s dresser into Hogwarts and blown Voldemort away.  I mean, he uses a “killing spell” or whatever on Harry’s parents and he’s the scariest dude ever.  Let’s see how he deals with raining artillery shell or a sniper round from a half mile away.  Christ, wands don’t even have sights.  How the fuck do you effectively aim one?

Or, I could let this shit go because its a wonderful, magical world intended to fascinate and entertain children, not something to be torn apart by bitter grognards.


Harry Potter movies. Really?

In Books, Movies on July 14, 2009 at 11:54 pm

Listen, I like Harry Potter.  I think J. K. Rowling is a fine writer.  I think the whole series is a charming series of children books that developed into fine young adult books as the protagonists grew older.  I find the world of the old HP to be fun and interesting, but completely silly and undeveloped in a fun way .  It’s perfect for what it is.  I’ve read them and enjoyed them.

I have also gotten some enjoyment from the movies, as well.  I find the first two Chris Columbus installments to be too literal, too dull, and too hokey.  They were hardly travesties, just not very good.  The found the third, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, to be a really wonderful movie, however.  Alfonso Cuarón brought a nice sense of darkness and reality to the series and I feel like that tone has been maintained, more or less, as the franchise has continued.  So, I’m okay with the movies, too.

Look at this moody fuck.  What's all the hoopla?

Look at this moody fuck. What's all the hoopla?

So, what’s my point?  Well, I guess I’ve been hearing about midnight movie showings of the new movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I’ve heard of friends going to these late night events usually reserved for Star Wars flicks.  I don’t condemn it, really.  I just don’t get it.  I know this franchise is well loved, as Rowling’s ridonkulous wealth and fame support.  I’m not surprised by the books, even.  I just didn’t realize that the movies, themselves, had become geek events.  When did this happen?  What specific value of these works warrant this excitement?

I guess these movies do sometimes stray from the books in unexpected ways.

I guess these movies do sometimes stray from the books in unexpected ways.

So, usually I like to bring a strong point-of-view to these posts, but this time I am more confused than anything.  Can someone help me understand what I am missing in Harry Potter, as fiction in general and movies specifically.  I would appreciate it.

Song of Fear and Reservations

In Books, Television on July 10, 2009 at 1:08 am

I know the subject of this post has been in the works for a while but for those of you whom don’t know, George R. R. Martin’s first book in his Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, The Game of Thrones, has been optioned for an HBO miniseries.  I really enjoy this series quite a bit,  with its the gritty setting, interesting and extremely flawed characters, and surprising plot twists.  Also, the miniseries sounds okay so far, with Thomas McCarthy (director) and Peter Dinklage (actor) being involved.  I should be excited, right?

Well, yeah.  I suppose so.  I’m afraid that this project will not go forward and get made, as there is a lot of room for problems in the production of something this epic.  I remember the last few shows with big sets, costumes, and many characters (Rome, Deadwood) were canceled by HBO and could totally see them getting cold feet on this series.  The realities of the entertainment business are not the only thing that has me concerned.  Here’s a short list of what  has me a little worried.

Winter is coming.  But is a quality miniseries?  Too soon to tell.

Winter is coming. But is a quality miniseries? Too soon to tell.

1) Tons of characters: This book has a large cast of characters.  Very large.  Every main character has a supporting cast and there are dozens of main characters.  How will they have time to establish the necessary relationships?  Where will they find enough good actors necessary to pull it off?  How will the show be able to pay them?  How will the screenplay streamline the cast?  These questions trouble me, as they story could possibly be far too dense, have far too many shitty actors, or be really dumbed-down.

2) Too many children characters:  Many of the main characters are aged from 7 to 15 years of age.  While these characters think of themselves as “men grown” or having experienced their “moon blood” (you gotta love fantasy dialogue), it can be especially hard to find good young actors (going back to Point 1) and they often grow up much faster than the story itself can be made.

3) The books are not finished: As the novels are not complete, I worry that the miniseries may make changes that might seem minor now but be majorly important later.  A small character in Game of Thrones, easily replaced or ignored by a screenwriter, might factor into the story in a big way in the upcoming books.  More importantly, Martin’s involvement in this project will undoubtedly divide his already compromised focus on finishing the next novel in the series.  Martin, is neither a young man, nor does he strike me as a health nut.  I really would like to read the end of this series before this thing gets Robert Jordaned (too soon?).  Call me an insensitive prick, fine.  I don’t know George R.R. and I’m sure he’s a great guy and all, but my relationship with this guy is a consumer of his product.  I want that product.

For the sake of you fans, please lay off the honeyed mutton joints and lamprey pies, m'lord.

For the sake of your fans, please lay off the honeyed mutton joints and lamprey pies, m'lord.

4) Potential for cheesiness:  Listen, I love fantasy narratives, in general, and Martin’s work is several cuts above the average books in the genre.. That being said, fantasy is really easy to make cheesy.  For every Lord of the Rings trilogy, there are tons of Dungeons & Dragons or Dragonhearts.  A lower than high budget can easily lead to cheap sets, shitty costumes, and awful special effects.  While I try to be optimistic, this can really fuck up a potentially good piece of entertainment.

So, that is some of what I worry about.  Don’t get me wrong.  I want this project to happen and I will be following this story as it develops closely.  Unlike some people, I’m not convinced it can work.  I hope I’m wrong.

Dumb fun?

In Books, Comics, Movies, Roleplaying Games, Science Fiction on June 12, 2009 at 1:30 am

As fans of various genre narratives, I wonder if we have appropriate expectations or even appropriate desires from our entertainment.  Do we want smart, considered meditations on the possibilities of the future or alternate worlds?  Or do we want dumb escapist fun that takes our mind to more entertaining places than our current realities?  Do we want each sometimes?  Is there a happy medium between the two?

Let me bring out some examples, such as the Matrix. Personally, I think the idea of keeping humans around as a power source for machines is dumb.  I think that controlling of that source of power using an elaborate virtual reality that occasionally frees people to create an opposition that requires destroying as part of an elaborate cycle is really dumb.  Yet, I think that a cool virtual reality where people can do amazing things and fight scary agents is pretty fun and exciting.  The problem is, I have a hard time rationalizing the dumb parts with my brain and rationalizing the mundane parts with my gut.  I want visceral experiences but I want them to make sense.  I want quirky, ginchy coolness but I want it to follow some kind of real world rules.

For instance, you know who lacks any logical ability to fly under any possible understanding of aerodynamics?  The Rocketeer.  You know who has a sweet helmet and costume?  Yup, you guessed it.

If this made sense, you would be looking at the coolest quadrapalegic with third degree ass-burns in the world.

If this made sense, you would be looking at the coolest quadriplegic with third degree ass-burns in the world.

Should I be thinking about why Wolverine’s claws wouldn’t cut easily through metal no matter how hard or sharp his claws?  Or should I enjoy Wolverine fucking people up in cool and interesting ways?

I face the same paradox as a creator as I do as a fan.  When writing a screenplay, a comic script, or even a D&D adventure, I need to balance the child-like fun with logical sense.  I’m not talking about the creation of derivative material (that will be another post) but the creation of material we know doesn’t make sense but makes us feel good, or happy, or excited.  If you watch Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, some people thinking that ginchy giant robots are amazing.  Others wonder why you would have have a flying machine with flapping wings.  The balance of sense and wonder is completely subjective.

So we get to my problem.  I want my heart to soar, but keep my head from hurting.  Is this possible?  Is this a problem for anyone else?   I feel like this is my biggest dilemma as a fan of geek culture.  It is something I have touched on before and will return to again.

Fantasy anachronisms

In Books on June 4, 2009 at 10:01 pm

I am currently reading a book by Steven Pressfield called Tides of War, a novel talking about Alcibiades and his role in the Peloponnesian War from the point of view of his eventual assassin.  I respect Pressfield’s familiarity with the time period of ancient Greece, though I cannot argue its validity as I am no expert.  I like historical fiction, sometimes, because it provides the fun of an unfamiliar world with the believability of a place and time that actually existed.  This stands in stark contrast with the majority of fantasy I read.

Let me explain what I mean.  Most fantasy fiction is set in a pseudo-medieval European world.  The earliest forms of this type of work may existed in a version of our world, like the Camelot of King Arthur,  the Hyperborean world of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, and the Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Other writers, such as Fritz Lieber started moving further and further away from the existing past to create alternate worlds with different cultures and geographies than our planet.  It gets tricky, however, because many of the elements of fantasy are based on specific culture’s innovations.  Things in the ancient and medieval world occurred based on specific examples cultural diffusion between European, Middle Eastern, African, and Asian cultures across millenium.  The idea that medieval warfare, architecture, literature, or art would evolve in a fictional setting in a way striking similar to the real world defies any kind of credibility I can imagine.  How can you have a fictional medieval Europe without a fictional Greece, a fictional China, or a fictional Egypt?  The diffusion occurring across diverse cultures is responsible for the specific characteristics of most histories,, yet I feel that this is an aspect missing in a great deal of fantasy literature.  It reminds me of the new Battlestar Gallactica, where we are expected that things like firearms, neckties, hospital beds, bars, T-shirts, pianos and basically every frakking thing in the world could evolve in a culture that had never seen or experienced modern Earth.  It requires a series of coincedences that would never happen.

But fine, whatever.  Maybe people want to create a world where fun things like castles, knights, kingdoms, and crossbows can exist with dragons, magic, and elves but without Christianity, Crusades, or bubonic plague.  Sure, I can understand that impulse.  I play D&D and Elder Scrolls games.  But then there is another side that makes me even crazier.  I call this the “spiked armor phenomenon.”  Basically, plate armor protects the wearer by both being hard enough to resist penetration and deflecting the force away from the body.  So, when you see kickass fanasty armor with spikes and adornments, you are looking at things that would catch weapons and help them hurt the wearer more.  An axe blade, insteading of sliding off a smooth steel plate, would get stuck on a spike and be forced to transfer its force to the armor and the person wearing it.  Crunch.  So much fantasy is concerned with looking awesome that it defies reason or logic.  It makes it seem silly and inconsequential.  This kind of bullshit is not just with armor.  Castles with big windows, overly enourmous swords with worthless curves or serrations, and holy priests whom seem to lack any theology are the kinds of fantasy tropes that commonly challenge the rules of the reality they represent.

You can tell she is a great warrior because she wears armor that is designed to kill its wearer.  Also...put a fucking helmet on!

You can tell she is a great warrior because she wears armor that is designed to kill its wearer. Also...put a fucking helmet on!

I want to go into this more but I’m curious how you guys think about it.  I need more time to reflect on this.

New inspiration

In Books, Comics, Movies, Roleplaying Games, Science Fiction, Television, Toys on June 3, 2009 at 9:21 pm

I was sitting down to write something for today’s post and was trying to articulate a topic.  I was thinking about the evolution of the pop-culture ninja since their re-emergence in the 80’s.  It got me thinking, however, about how in this last month of blogging I’ve mined nostalgia for inspiration.  As it turns out, a lot.  Which got me thinking about when was the last time I had a new geek interest or obsession.  So, the ninja conversation will have to wait for another time.  Sorry shuriken fans.

I was wracking my brain about the last time anything new or original grabbed my attention.  Almost everything that interests me, from comics to my favorite movies to toys to books to roleplaying games go back to childhood or adolescence.  I am almost completely at a loss to discover anything I really got into as an adult.  Fun and enjoyable media are often based on or inspired by old franchises that I’ve enjoyed for decades.

What will this kid ever love as much?

What will this kid ever love as much?

Oh, it’s not that bleak, I guess.  As I think about it, I can come up with plenty of stuff.  I really like Firefly, for instance, and that’s a new franchise.  Sure, it plays on familiar science-fiction norms but it’s still something new.  And there are plenty of comics, like Ed Brubaker’s Criminal series, that I think are pretty awesome without the lens of nostalgia.  And George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is a very enjoyable series that sucked me in more than any geek literature I can recall.  There is new stuff, to be sure, but my head and heart seem most attached to the properties of my youth.

So I ask you, is there something special about youth for the formation of the adult geek?  Can new obsessions every really match the longstanding ties we have to our first loves, so to speak.  When is the last time you were inspired by something new?  Discuss.