The Toys of Imagination

MonsterManualTony DiTerlizzi has a fascinating post up about the visual creative origins of some classic Dungeons and Dragons monsters and the power of play and imagination. Tony worked on the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual and talks about how some of the monsters were based on a set of cheesy plastic monster figures from Hong Kong.

He has included some great pictures of his personal collection along with some history from Tim Kask. Well worth checking out here.

(via BoingBoing)


SFWA, hate speech, and standing up for what is right

Just the other day, in response to sexual harassment in the Australian military, Lt. General David Morrison said,

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. That goes for all of us. But especially those who by their rank have a leadership role.”

This seems a standard that, so far, the SFWA has not lived up to. If you aren’t aware of the current firestorm surround the SFWA, you can start by reading Foz Meadows. And you should, her (very appropriate) anger rips through the page.

You see, N.K. Jemisin deigned to address racism in the SFF industry. Can you imagine that, a woman and person of color trying to address such an issue. I’ll let Foz summarize,

Last week, author N. K. Jemisin delivered her Guest of Honour speech at Continuum in Melbourne. It’s a powerful, painful, brilliant piece about racism in SFF, and racism elsewhere; about the barbaric treatment suffered by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, my home, at the hands of white invaders, politicians, and most of the rest of the populace for the past two hundred-odd years. It’s also a call for Reconciliation within the SFF community: capital R, much like the Reconciliation our government has so belatedly and underwhelmingly – yet so significantly – attempted to make itself. She wrote in response to not only the recent strife within SFWA, but all the endless scandals of racefail and sexism and appropriation which have preceded it within reach of our collective memory; a memory she rightly names as short.

And as a result, Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day – a man whose man affronts to humanity, equality and just about every person on Earth who isn’t a straight white American cismale are so well documented as to defy the utility of cataloguing them here, when all you need do is Google him – has responded to Jemisin with a racist screed so vile and unconscionable that the only surprise is that even he, a man with no apparent shame, felt comfortable putting his name to it.

Wow, those are some harsh words. Some people can get heated about others views, misreading them or interpreting them in ways they didn’t mean. What might have sent Foz (and a legion of others) to raise their voices so loud, to scream to the rafters, to engage in twitter conversations that last an entire weekend?

It is vileness like this, (emphasis from Foz, this is her extract of Beale’s hate speech),

“Jemisin has it wrong; it is not that I, and others, do not view her as human, (although genetic science presently suggests that we are not equally homo sapiens sapiens), it is that we do not view her as being fully civilized for the obvious reason that she is not.

She is lying about the laws in Texas and Florida too. The laws are not there to let whites “just shoot people like me, without consequence, as long as they feel threatened by my presence”, those self defence laws have been put in place to let whites defend themselves by shooting people, like her, who are savages in attacking white people.

Jemisin’s disregard for the truth is no different than the average Chicago gangbanger’s disregard for the law…

Unlike the white males she excoriates, there is no evidence that a society of NK Jemisins is capable of building an advanced civilization, or even successfully maintaining one without significant external support. Considering that it took my English and German ancestors more than one thousand years to become fully civilised after their first contact with an advanced civilisation, it is illogical to imagine, let alone insist, that Africans have somehow managed to do so in less than half the time with even less direct contact. These things take time.

Being an educated, but ignorant savage, with no more understanding of what it took to build a new literature by “a bunch of beardy old middle-class middle-American guys” than an illiterate Igbotu tribesman has of how to build a jet engine, Jemisin clearly does not understand that her dishonest call for “reconciliation” and even more diversity with SF/F is tantamount to a call for its decline into irrelevance…

Reconciliation is not possible between the realistic and the delusional.

Holy Fucking Crap, that is some racist bullshit right there. How can this man continue to be a member of SFWA? He not only wrote this hate filled screed, he then pushed it to the SFWA twitter feed. By pushing it to the twitter feed, he not only violated the SFWA rules, but he made it seem if this was a view promoted by the organization.

In following the many discussion it is disheartening to see that the SFWA has remained mostly silent, Beale has not been removed. It is also disturbing to see the (mostly, if not all, white male) apologists try to defend his actions. They claim that his views are allowed because … uh … FREEDOM! Yes, it seems that a whole swarth of people do not understand what freedom of speech is. They mistakenly believe that we, the public, in our social groupings must allow unfettered speech. This is false. It is ignorance of what free speech is. When we speak of Free Speech (in the U.S. 1st Amendment sense) we speak of the governments ability to suppress speech. We, as individual social groupings, have the right to include those who we feel represent our standards and exclude those who do not.

A group like SFWA is a community of many people. A diversity of views is a positive and dynamic way for us all to learn about others, about those unlike us, about those that have lived different lives, in different bodies. These are interactions that benefit us all, they make us all better people, by understanding that which is not within our own narrow world view.

The use of hate speech (and that is the proper definition of this), trucking in racism, misogyny, and personal attacks is not only disgusting, it is HURTFUL. It is speech that is meant to diminish and denigrate others. It is an attack on other members of the SFWA and the entire community of hard working writers, publishers, editors and readers, and it is up to the leadership of the SFWA to immediately address this.

I am unsure if the leadership actually understands how big an issue this is becoming. It is moving from a single hate filled man, to a belief that the SFWA leadership is somehow afraid to confront him, to kick him to the curb, to say “You are not welcome here.” This soft response enables more hate, it is a tacit approval (through silence and inaction) that alienates new writers of all shapes, colors, sizes and gender. It hurts readers, who won’t see SFF as a place that is welcoming to them. A place where they can find fantastic stories about the wondrous diversity of existence.

Beale diminishes himself with his hate speech. The SFWA diminishes us all with their silence.

To crib from Lt. General Morrison’s comments, applied to SFWA:

the [SFWA] has to be an inclusive organization, in which every [writer], man and woman, is able to reach their full potential and is encouraged to do so. Those who think that it is okay to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in [the SFWA].

Get it done. You can fix this. You can stand up for right! You can stand up and say that Science Fiction and Fantasy are places of amazing vitality and a welcoming place for those who are not white, middle class, male, cisgendered, straight, and of course western.

* and hey, if you claim that YOU are one of those white cismales, guess what … you are already welcome. Hell, you dominate almost everything in the west, including the largest demographic of writers in the SFWA. That means it is YOU who must speak up!

In Memorium–Robert E. Howard

Image3Today, June 11th, is the 77th anniversary of the death of Robert E. Howard.

Howard (or “REH”) is one of those writers who is well known by fans of a specific genre but not widely known to the general public.  Some may remember that he created CONAN and will probably think more about a certain ex-governor than they will the author.  I’d venture to say that many newer fans of fantasy and sword & sorcery fiction may know who REH is but haven’t really read much of his work.  (This is a symptom that is happening with Lovecraft as well.  Many know Lovecraft’s name but few people, even fans, have actually read his work.)

This is somewhat of a shame for REH in that his writing was often so much more than just fantasy or barbarians or even horror.  Especially powerful are his tales of his native Texas where REH’s voice is powerful and unique.

REH is truly one of the great figures in fantasy literature and one of the founders of the mini-genre of sword & sorcery with his many Conan stories.  A lost of what we see today in these genres is built upon the foundation that REH created.

But, I have a bit of a problem with REH.  (Which, if you’ve been reading my columns, you’ve probably been waiting for me to say.)

I’ve never been a huge fan of REH.  I’ve read and enjoyed the Conan stories along with the Soloman Kane tales as well as his pure adventure yarns.  But they’ve never made a big impact with me.  (To be fair, I know many people feel the same about William Hope Hodgson whom I have championed in the past and continue to do so at my other blog. Different strokes.)  I find myself mystified at the popularity of some of his horror stories particularly the often praised, “Pigeons from Hell”, which left me cold.  So, while I admire his achievements and applaud his reputation as a writer, I just don’t see it.  Which is why I only have a few REH books in my collection and will likely sit down again and see if my coolness towards him was simply an inability of me to appreciate him due to my youth.  (This has happened several times and so has the reverse.)

One of the issues I have with REH will likely not make me very popular either.  You see, REH killed himself.  At the far too young age of 30, REH blew his brains out.  A large part of that hinged upon the probably very unhealthy dependence/relationship he had with his mother who laid dying in a coma as REH sat in his car and pulled the trigger on the borrowed .380 Colt Pistol.

I am no stranger to dark thoughts.  I can safely say that one of the main reasons I am still on this planet is because I did not have access to dangerous items during particularly bad times.  So I understand some of the pain and emotions which drove him to this decision.  It is indeed a dark place when you find yourself considering this to be your only solution.

But part of me is angry too.  Angry that REH had so many other stories to tell that we will never hear.  Angry that he never got to experience so many things or the opportunity to add more to the lives of others.  Mostly, though, it just makes me sad because it was such a waste.

Our culture has a tendency sometimes to glamorize suicide.  Hemingway.  Cobain.  Even ones who die young due to their chosen lifestyle like Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison.  But there’s really nothing glamorous about this.  It wasn’t glamorous to REH’s father who had to deal with a son who now had a catastrophic head wound along with a wife dying from tuberculosis.  (REH was still alive for 8 hours before dying from his wound and his mother outlived him by not dying until the next morning.  There’s nothing noble about it despite biographers who explain Hemingway as being true to his ‘manly’ mystique.  It wasn’t ‘Conan-esque’ for REH to shoot himself.

It’s just a waste and that’s tragic.

Epic Fantasy needs to explore Epic Ideas

A Dribble of Ink has a great post up about epic fantasy.  The G., from Nerds of  a Feather, Flock Together, dives into the perceived  conservative strain that is claimed to plague epic fantasy. This conservatism is natural in the structure of epic fantasy. The genre has certain tropes of structure that inherently define it. But this structure, with its journey and great epic struggle on top of a fantastical second-worlds setting, does not demand similarly conservative takes on perceived social norms.

In fact, I’d suggest it is the area most ripe for new storytelling. Epic fantasy has a role to play in exploring creative and deep looks into how society and individuals can exist. It is the very existence of new rules, of a second-world that only needs to conform to its own internal consistencies, that allows epic fantasy to break those societal tropes. Mr G. stresses the value of the possible impossible (magic) :

What’s more, epic fantasy worlds are by definition places where the unreal becomes real. Sometimes there are dragons in the mountains, or elves, orcs and gnomes living amongst us. Occasionally there are malevolent gods who want to come back to rule; more often there are malevolent sorcerers who wield god-like powers and seek to do the same. Nearly always there are powers beyond the control of regular folks, though some gifted or enterprising young types might learn to master them. These are, by definition and in name, fantastic spaces where magic and metaphysics render the impossible possible. Epic fantasy worlds do selectively borrow from real world histories, mythologies and cultural norms, but they are rarely comprehensive or terribly accurate in those borrowings. The ideal aim is for authenticity and internal consistency, because realism is pretty much off the table.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the a) invented nature of epic fantasy worlds; b) heterogeneity of what falls under the epic fantasy rubric; and c) presence of user-definable systems of magic, metaphysics and the otherwise made-up would, taken together, also encourage authors to adopt a speculative perspective on social arrangements. Yet somehow keep going back to the same old medieval European settings and patriarchal, ethnocentric and heteronormative assumptions of how societies “should” look like.

As he continues to say, while acknowledging that there is nothing inherently wrong with euro-centric epic fantasy, that there is more to explore.  He is right to note how “Nora Jemisin, Doug Hulick, Saladin Ahmed and Elizabeth Bear signal that epic fantasy has discovered that worlds beyond the geographic, mythological and sociological borders of alt-Europe can be just as, and often more, compelling than the stuff we’re used to. Scott Lynch, Catherine Valente, Kate Elliott, Trudi Canavan, Daniel Abraham—these authors and others like them are effectively using the medium to ask complex questions about human nature.”

These are the types of authors and stories that will help expand the genre of epic fantasy and keep it vibrant into the future. The grand romantic tradition of epic fantasy is ripe for deep and complex storytelling. It can morph and change and twist into anything the imagination can conjure. The time is ripe for more epic fantasies to escape the clutches of gender and power norms, to explore new ways for a society to develop, to explore how such changes would alter a civilization. It is time to explore new ways for societies to resolve conflicts at the epic scale and to resolve power struggles. Epic fantasy has all the structure to tell powerful and compelling stories.  By mining the full possibilities of existence, outside the trappings of human prejudice and ingrained structural normas (along side magic and the impossible), these stories are capable of exploring all kinds of exciting possibilities, ones that can more keenly reflect and look back at ourselves.

In many ways, epic fantasy is still in its infancy, and that is a good sign. It shows that there is more to explore, there are new stories to tell, there are new readers and there are new writers. Let’s hope they dream some more, and imagine new worlds and new heroes, ones that will surprise us and make us laugh and love and cry and then, ponder what it all means.

What’s in a Game? Part 3

I spend a lot of time pretending to be someone else. I always have. When I was a kid, I would go out in the side yard and play superhero. When I was really young, it was always Superman, Batman and Aquaman, because those were the cartoons I was watching at that time.  As I got older and discovered actual comic books, the characters changed. I became Spider-Man or the Thing.  As I met new characters in various media, my personal cast would change. I became Steve Austin, Lucky Starr, Mar-Vell, or, my perennial favorite Mr. Spock.

As I grew up, I started creating my own characters, usually some sort of paragon or another.  I would mix and match traits, and run through dialog and scenes in my head. Various household objects became amazing devices. My personal favorite was a 30-60-90 triangle that could channel enough cosmic power through it to shave the tops off mountains.

Then I discovered D&D.

I can still hear the angelic chorus even now as I remember that day. I was twelve years old  in the local toy store with a treasure trove to spend, a whole fifteen dollars, when I walked past a shelf with an unassuming box on it. It wasn’t a really thick box, but it had the word “Dragons” on it, so it earned a second look. The back of the box promised to help bring my fantasy adventures to life. What more could I ask? Money changed hands, and the box came home with me.

Dungeons and Dragons swept through my internal world like a kleptomaniac with a get out of jail free card. In a matter of days I went from playing superheroes to Aragorn and Elric. Household items became less important than a good straight stick to use as a sword. I would wander out into the woods near my house and slay all manner of imaginary terrors . . . and then sic them on my friends. What fun!! As the game evolved I went out and bought the newer, larger books. My best friend and I would spend entire weekends slaying monsters and racking up treasure. The adventures of the mighty wizard Gorgonzola still make me chuckle to this day. (For the record, he wasn’t MY mighty wizard. The name was too cheesy for me. It was only later I discovered that was because  it was an actual cheese.)

Since then, Dungeons and Dragons has always been part of my gaming life. When they upgraded to third edition, I went along. When they  upgraded to 3.5 I followed along again, spending hundreds of dollars. I drew the line at 4th edition. I have yet to buy a single book. It hasn’t stopped me from playing the game. I am still a semi regular in a fourth edition D&D game to this day. I’m totally dependent on the rest of the group for the rules, but that’s okay. When a rules issue comes up, they tell me how it works these days and I nod, smile, and kick monster butt.

Now let’s be honest, D&D isn’t the best game in the world, no matter what standard you choose to measure it by. The class/level system doesn’t reflect how people develop in the real world. I am not my job. I have interests that range beyond it, questions that have nothing to do with it, and needs it doesn’t fulfill (which perhaps explains why I got into gaming in the first place.). But D&D doesn’t allow for that in their character system. You can change paths, sure, but you still have to walk a path.This becomes especially true in Fourth edition. You pick an archetype, progress along a very narrow track, making one or two decisions each level to define your character, get your stuff and move on.

Then there’s the combat system. While the game has literally decades of experience to draw from, it still clings to some basic tenets from long ago, like Armor Class. Every system handles combat differently, infusing what reality they can into the process. As the  prototype, D&D has more bugs than most, which loyal fans insisted make the journey. Armor class is one of them, in my opinion. Armor doesn’t prevent hits. It protects from harm.  I understand the abstractions that dictate the system. I can appreciate them and work with them. I also see where they go wrong.  The system limits your options.

Fourth edition goes even further down this road, taking nearly all of the creativity out of combat. You select a target,  run down a list of options, pick one, resolve it, and wait for your next turn. Granted, it does tend to speed up the game, but it takes some of the fun out of it, too. Gone are the brilliant improvisations that rely on the environment. You don’t even have the limited versatility of the magic system (Another flaw, by the way. Spells per day as a hard limit makes no sense at all to me.) to help you out. There are only the power cards, the numbers and the dice.

Despite it all, I don’t foresee a  time when there won’t be D&D books on my shelves somewhere. The system is clunky, sure.  It has holes and flaws, but that’s hardly a shock.  Every system does.  But we have too much history together for me to just walk away. When I think of minions or cannon fodder, I think first of orcs. When I imagine a wizard spell, the first thing I see is a fireball. And the word cleric conjures images of armored mace carrying holy men, not scholarly religious figures in conference rooms. In fact, D&D 3.5  is the first system I introduced to my kids. And it’s paying off, too.

Now they’re running games for me.

Hear that? That’s what an angelic chorus sounds like.

Defeatism and the Fairy Tale Ending

Art by ~beti123

Art by ~beti123

I have been fascinated by myths, myth-cycles, and fairy tales for a while.  They all have an almost universal touch, they become tropes and memes and filter across humanity, percolating over the ages.  They morph and change with the times. They become the backing track of storytelling, repeating and reincarnating.  Melinda Snodgrass talks about the power of myth, fairy tale endings and reader expectations over at A Dribble of Ink and gets at some important points.

In todays post-post-modern world it is almost cliche when a story falls into senseless tragedy. It is an easy, defeatist way to force shock onto a shock-proof audience. The best of story tells us something about humanity. It can look internally at who we are as living beings, it can look into our souls. And it can look around ones self, tracing and exploring the links between us all, flittering over the complex web of interconnected souls. And it can look outward, it can look at how we deal with the universe around us in its awe and power and at the loss of control a human has when one extends beyond the immediacy of the self.

In asking, “is a fairy tale ending really all that bad?” Melinda says,

After all, David does defeat Goliath, and Odysseus gets to come home to his wife and son, Cinderella does go to the ball, Elisa spins nettles into shirts and saves her brothers and her marriage. We know the Little Tailor will outwit the giants and the king and win the princess. Things don’t always turn out badly, and people tend to remember the good things that happened to them rather than the bad. So why not celebrate that?

We know what to expect from these stories because the ending has been promised by the beginning, and if you don’t pay off that promise you are going to upset your listener/reader/viewer/player. Perhaps we all know the parameters of the promises because humans have been telling each other stories across numerous forms of entertainment for thousands of years. The tales have “grown in the telling”, as Tolkien said — from blind poets around fire pits in ancient Greece to stone hearths in castles where the tales were sung by bards, to a Dickens novel serialized in magazines, to movie palaces and finally on televisions and game consoles.

She believes there is nothing wrong with the “happy ending,” and I agree. There is a reason these stories have lasted so long. They speak to something about human existence. If our lives are defined only by tragedy then there is little reason to explore life itself. Instead humanity has thrived through its constant hope. It has advanced by reminding itself through story that life has joy, that the burdens of the everyday are often blinders to the life around us.

These stories, void of the senseless tragedy and a defeatist view of humanity, are a communal chant across the ages. They are the story tropes and memes and myths and fairy tales that have stood the test of time. They are not the exclusive bastian of the literary elite, but by all humanity, across culture and language, education and wealth. They are universals, and they often speak to hope and ethics and morality and justice and yes, sometimes they ends with “and they all lived happily ever after.”

Old Friends

Wandering the fertile realms of sci-fi and fantasy has introduced me to many interesting people. I’ve gazed upon paragons, such as Superman. I’ve shared the struggles of ordinary mortals thrust into events beyond their control, in Mordor and beyond. There are people  that have impressed me, confused me, intrigued  me, and one or two that have terrified me. But along the way there are people I came to know very well. They live in books I read over and over again, books so well loved I don’t even need to search for the good parts any more. They just fall open to them at a touch. Let me introduce you to some of these friends.

David and Leigh Eddings wrote several fantasy series together, but their first was undoubtedly their best. The Belgariad is just full of people I really enjoyed the company of. Durnik, Silk, Mandorallen and Barak are people I would recognize anywhere if I saw them, and while I wouldn’t want to fight any of them, I would love to hoist a tankard with all of them. (But if Silk were there, I’d leave my money at home.) These men are so very different, yet play off each other brilliantly. Silk, the amoral rogue and brilliant spy, is probably my favorite to watch, but Mandorallen, “the greatest knight on life,” as he modestly claims, is the one I’d spend the most time with.  Belgarath and his daughter Polgara, excellent characters though they are, walk in too lofty a circle for the likes of me. I doubt Polgara would give me the time of day, let alone spend time in my presence. Belgarath would be great fun if I could get him telling stories, but he’s a bit busy. As an ensemble cast, they are tremendous fun and a nearly unbeatable team. I have whiled away many an hour in their company traveling the world at the demand of the Prophecy that drives them.

Miles Vorkosigan is a different sort of person altogether. I’m not certain we could ever be friends, but I would be honored to work for the man. Lois McMaster Bujold’s greatest creation (in my opinion, of course,) and his family have won her four Hugo Awards and nominations for six more, and for good reason. Miles is a man driven to excel. Physically disadvantaged from birth in a military crazed culture that deplores mutants, Miles is the son of one of the greatest men of his generation. His deformities are the result of an attack suffered by his parents when he was in utero, rendering him brittle and sickly most of his life. But his mind is a tool he wields  with tremendous skill. Rather than try to hurt his enemies, Miles tends to co-opt them. As he puts it, and I paraphrase, “Why should I try to beat their strengths, when I can maneuver them to a place where that strength is useless?” Miles’ loyalty, whether to his servants, his friends, or his world is uncompromising, his approach to problems unique, and his sense of humor hilarious. Bujold’s style lets us into his life in a deeply personal way. We see his struggles, which makes cheering for his successes all the more satisfying. And the rest of his family and friends are equally impressive. As much as I treasure time spent with Miles, his father Aral Vorkosigan could claim my loyalty in a hot second, and his mother Cordelia is a woman not to be trifled with.

And then there is Harry Dresden, star of the Dresden Files novels created by Jim Butcher. Remember a couple of paragraphs ago when I said some people have terrified me? Harry Dresden is on the short list. Which is odd when you consider some of the other short lists he makes, such as “Person I would trust with my life.”  Harry is a wizard living in Chicago. In fact, he’s the only entry under “Wizard,” in the Chicago phone book. And friends, Harry is the real deal. This is a man who commands the forces of nature, who stands between us and things too terrible to contemplate. The facts that he read a lot of comics as a kid and plays RPG’s to relax (he plays a Barbarian.) are merely incidental, and don’t pander to my interests at all. There have been thirteen Dresden files novels so far, and of those there are only two I have not read at least three times. (I will not prejudice the jury and say which ones they are, if only to provide you with more incentive to find out for yourself.)  Harry is a dedicated man, surrounded by characters that are real and compelling. His challenges are epic, the risks he takes meeting them truly terrifying, and his solutions bold and unexpected. As dynamic and powerful as his enemies are, his friends are even better. Karrin Murphy, Harry’s closest friend, is either the best or second best female character I have ever read. Her only competition is Cordelia Vorkosigan. (Edding’s Polgara rounds out the top three. Do you see a pattern here?)

There are more out there. I could go on about Corwin, Prince of Amber. We could talk about Rincewind or Commander Vimes, and the many excellent Discworld characters from the mind of Terry Pratchett. If I wandered out of genre for a moment we could dwell on Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. But in genre, these three sets of characters are the ones I return to again and again when I want to feel welcome or wonder.  If you haven’t met them yet, I urge you to go make plans to as soon as possible. You won’t be disappointed.

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