Jack Vance’s Waterworld

Remember that movie Waterworld? Of course you do. It gets blasted for being kinda crappy, but it’s got a lot of stuff I like – post-apocalyptic setting, Dennis Hopper getting an eye blown out, Kevin Costner playing Kevin Costner. It’s kinda like Mad Max on water instead of in Australia. Ok, it’s not a great film, but it’s entertaining scifi.

Well, imagine if instead of floating junk platforms and rusty barges, people lived on giant lily pads and harvested sea life for sustenance. And everyone was descended from criminals (kinda like Mad Max, being set in Australia). Oh and there was a giant sea monster named King Kragen that would roll up and eat all your home-grown sponges and if you made a fuss he’d wreck your shit. This is Jack Vance’s Blue World.


I wasn’t originally quite sure what to expect from this one, but it kept me engaged and wanting to pick it up whenever I could find the time (and often it was a choice between sleeping while the baby let me or else reading and heaping maledictions upon King Kragen – curse his name!).

There’s a lot going on here and it’s got a lot of Vance’s signature moves – a competent protagonist who is intelligent and brave yet no action hero (pay no attention to the cover-Fabio above), witty, dry dialogue, big words, science, and oh so much imagination.


One thing about the science of Jack Vance’s writing – it always feels “real” to me without getting too crunchy and boring. That is, it seems sufficiently detailed and plausible. Could you really burn off gallons of blood to gather iron for weapons and armor? I don’t know, but it’s a cool idea and sounds like it could be possible! Can you burn off plant matter to gather copper for crafting electrical conduits? Sure, why not? There’s something about stories like this that make me think of survival or colony-building video games and tech trees.

It’s also worth noting that Vance, though a noted proponent of tradition, is the ultimate shitlord, always willing to lampoon if it serves the story. I say this because my esteemed colleague Cirsova once pointed out to me that Vance has skewered tradition before. In the Blue World, Vance lays out a society that pays homage to a predatory monster that’s basically an overgrown octopus-crab (maybe? I kind of had trouble picturing it). The hero is the guy who finally gets sick of having his sponge-trees picked clean by the brute and decides to rouse some rabble.

The rabble itself is satisfying. Like in all of Vance’s other stories, many of the characters sound the same, speaking with honorifics and wield big fancy words and small difficult words. But the world is populated with both fools and those of superior intellect; the courageous and the cowardly; villains and heroes and those in between. In other words, I found the characters interesting sufficiently varied.

Potentially noteworthy – the hero gets the girl in the end, which isn’t always the case with Vance.

In conclusion, I’m a Vance fanboi and reading the Blue World has done nothing to shake my faith in his superior skill and unjust obscurity. 5/5.






Dilvish, the Damned: more “not Tolkien”

One of the things I enjoy most about old Appendix N work (and similarly classic and formational SFF) is that there’s so much “not Tolkien” fantasy to masticate. Don’t get me wrong – I love me some JRR hobbits and trolls, but I’ve gotten kind of worn out on today’s brand of knock-off Gandalfs and Legolas clones. Even when they’re Dark-Legolas.


So how about an Elfin hero who’s not so Elfy?

He’s got the green Elf-boots (TM) that assure he always magically lands on his feet, and seem to give him a vague sneaking bonus of some kind, but he doesn’t tote a longbow, thank God. Nor does he dual-wield any kind of fighting implements – no, he seems plenty comfortable with plain, old cold steel.

He doesn’t hear the whispers of the trees, nor does he charm animals, unless you count his companion/mount Black, the metal demon horse. And he doesn’t know any spells of protection or healing, but he does know a few incantations in the tongue of the underworld that can level cities.


Dilvish, the Damned is an interesting sort of protagonist, consorting with or banishing demons as called for in a given situation. Driven by a deep thirst for revenge against the Saruman-type who banished him to Hell, he still holds to his own strict moral code, which includes assisting the weak and needy when able, and killing only those who deserve it when it can’t be avoided. In the introductory stories, we see him racing, out of a sense of personal obligation, to save a city from conquest. Later on he helps various other unfortunates who just happen to be in his path. He doles out both death and mercy. Dilvish is no saint, but he’s clearly no villain, either.

My favorite parts of Dilvish, the Damned were the stories of gods and fantastical creatures with somewhat less-than-common spin. One story is about a meeting with a werewolf, whom Dilvish pities and would rather not slay. Now there are a lot of popular associations when it comes to werewolves – weakness to silver, the full moon, transformation. But all this story really focuses on is the unrelenting hunger of the beast. It struck me in a positive way.

Another tale includes the recounting of a deicide committed by an ancestor of Dilvish. Excellent dying words here:


I’ve become a big fan of short stories, and the episodic, yet continuing nature of Dilvish’s adventures scratches an itch. Although I really wish I knew what happened to that sweet invisible sword he picks up in one story and seems to lose sometime before the next. But alas, leaving some things unsaid or unexplained can be an effective storytelling technique.

The most disappointing part of the Dilvish stories has been Zelazny’s uneven writing, which is perhaps unsurprising for story written over the span of decades. Sometimes the writing is quite good and characters use archaic yet unstilted manners of speech (see above).

At other times the writing slips into a more…contemporary flavor.


This can be all the more jarring when the two writing/speaking styles intermingle in the same story. If you can get past this, however, the writing is pretty solid, even if not every story is a home run.

Dilvish, the Damned was a pleasant surprise for me. I enjoyed Zelazny’s Amber stories, but for whatever reason I was expecting a “hero” somewhere between Cugel and Elric. While Dilvish certainly falls short of the traditional Christian champion of yore, we do instead have a flawed but noble hero to cheer for.

He is named both “Damned” and “Deliverer” by characters in his world, and he indeed presents us with another (though lighter) shade of gray. But Zelazny still delivers us a hero, free of grimdark nihilism, and with enough uniqueness for me to recommend picking this one up if you get the chance. 4.5/5.



Make yourself useful, mage!

Yesterday Cirsova shared some thoughts on Twitter about a recent post over at Walker’s Retreat (which was in turn a reaction to a post at Dyvers blog).

This led to an interesting thread, if you’re of the sort who delights in this kind of raw nerdom.



A frequent criticism of D&D 3.5e, which is probably a middling version of the game in many senses (and yet like ice cream, each person has a favorite flavor), is that it’s too easy to get bogged down in rules and mechanics. Still, I think it gives a judicious and experienced DM the tools for a rather rich and dynamic game. A handyman may have a 50-piece ratchet/socket set in his toolbox; doesn’t mean he’s got to use it!

I must confess, I’ve never played a magic user. The only game I ever played in as a player gave me a taste of the charisma rogue, which I very much enjoyed.

The comparisons I can draw here are limited. A magic user may be standing in the doorway with his hands in his, uh, robe pockets as his party desperately fights off the goblin raiding party until he’s saved their bacon by expending a precious lightning bolt spell on the ogre boss that’s just rolled up on the exhausted heroes. As a silver-tongued rogue type, at least you’ve still got backstab, and hopefully enough HP and dexterity to help out on the front line for a round or two without getting insta-killed. You may not be a power-hitter, but you can at least do something useful most turns, whether it be culling a damaged bogie or firing off an arrow or two. Hey, at least I got you a flanking bonus!!

Anyway, when we consult our handy actuarial table of action types, we see that a magic user can…actually not really do much at all! My references above to aiding another or intimidating were actually useless advice in this context as they require melee range!

Unfortunately, without magical items or scrolls or maybe potions of some sort, a magic user’s not really got any recourse. Especially if he’s trying to sincerely roleplay his character.

What is one to do?

One branch of the conversation, which kind of circles back to Dyvers’ original post:


And I think that really may be the best solution – sprinkle in some magical goodies for your magic users to hold on to. But it’s up to the DM to anticipate and implement. If you return to some D&D’s source material, namely Dying Earth, you’ve got all manner of magical items for magic users to play around with between casting spells. Remember that in Vance’s stories, most wizards could only memorize a handful of incantations. While spells certainly accounted for an important portion of their overall power, perhaps equally important were the relics and magical artifacts that they were able to accumulate.

These gadgets can range in power, from extremely powerful to amusingly benign – think of Cugel’s “tube of blue concentrate,” which due to its mysterious nature elicited some degree of fear despite maybe just being a can of blue spray paint. These kinds of curios can be a real boon for a DM who doesn’t want to wantonly dish out wands of magic missile or other damage-dealing items, as they provide players with a great chance to get creative and do some quality roleplaying.


It’s also a thought for you fantasy writers. Instead of going with a vanilla wizard character who chants spells and draws runes, why not a codger with a bag full of doodads and magical junk?



PC Koshinbun: Beast Master, Conan, and Luke as Mary Sue

Another day, another roundup. Here’re some recent consumables for y’all:

  • Cirsova’s got a piece about Otto Skorzeny, a diabolical, brilliant, intriguing member of the SS upon whom some great villains could be based.







  • Clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson recently engaged in a “debate” with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News. Almost painful to watch in how one-sided this is.







Return of the Koshinbun: Tolkien, Final Fantasy IV, Rampage

Is anyone else tired of reading about The Last Jedi yet, or is it just me? Here are some other things that have been going on in nerd world lately:


  • A whopper of a Tolkien post at A Pilgrim in Narnia. There’s a lot to explore here – a great roundup in honor of JRR’s birthday.




Heck yeah





Also: Mighty Thor JRS is getting into some great stuff these days




  • I am late to the game on this by a couple months, but apparently we’ve got a Rampage movie coming. This looks like it will be a garbage film. It also looks like it will be a lot of fun.




Hard Vance: Dust of Far Suns

At our last (and first!) Bushi meetup, Gitabushi gifted me a number of old books, including a couple Vances. I also gifted him an old Vance book, but the trade was far from reciprocal, for JV is one of my favorites and Gita isn’t so impressed. C’est la vie.

Dust of Far Suns turned out to be another solid collection. Although one of the Demon Prince stories kind of dragged for me, I have yet to read a Vance story I didn’t appreciate as a work of superior quality. Dust is a pleasantly small little number with four quick and meaty short stories, unrelated so far as I could tell aside from all being set in the future.

Another notable fact is that they all seemed “hard” scifi to me. That is, Vance was never one to shy away from blending a little magic into his scientifiction if it suited a given story. These ones, though, all come across as scientifically plausible (to a layman like me, at any rate). There are parts, especially in the first and third stories, which go into some detail about futuristic technologies such as solar sails and image projection. Most of this was probably made-up science, but not being a scientist, I couldn’t tell.

The titular opening story is a cool little number about an old, hardened grump named Henry Belt, who is responsible for training space cadets. He’s bristly, he’s said to drink heavily, and everyone hates him, but he’s also responsible for turning out the best spacemen Earth has got. But he’s been informed by a prognosticator that he’s destined to die in space, and he’s getting on in years…so he tells his latest class that he doesn’t care much whether he makes it back this time. What will happen?

“Dodkin’s Job” tells the story of a Nonconformist living on a world run by the Organization, a global government run on red tape. Our hero is a man of no small intellect and ability, if he does say so himself, but he just can’t abide stupid, pointless rules and routines. But as a result, he’s been declassified (demoted in social rank and employment assignment) so many times that he’s only one strike away from becoming a “junior executive,” the lowest class comprised of the dregs of society. Still, his latest job is a drag and a new order has just come down that will cost him 3 hours of his personal time every day, just because some bureaucrat felt like flexing a little muscle. This will not stand!

“Ullward’s Retreat” is about a future in which space and privacy are at a premium. There are just so many people that a typical family lives in a domicile the size of a large closet. But not Ullward! This guy’s amassed nearly 3/4 of an acre – a veritable paradise, and he’s very fond of showing it off. But he’s about to set his eyes on something much larger…

“The Gift of Gab” was probably my favorite of this collection, and it reminded me in parts of The Gray Prince. The story starts off with the disappearance of a crewman from the raft upon which most of the tale is set. But where could he have gone?

Vance’s experience as a seaman really shows here as he describes parts of the raft and its operation, as its crewmen carry out their job of mining the sea for metals to be sent back to Earth (I presume?).

I’ve said before that I really enjoy the imaginative depiction of alien beings and environments in my scifi, and “The Gift of Gab” really delivers with its mysterious sea world the the strange life found thereon.

Overall I’d give this book a 4.5/5. Really enjoyed it!



Lest Darkness Fall

It’s been almost a whole year since I read my first de Camp book, The Tritonian Ring. HP of Every Day Should Be Tuesday fame and I did our para-read of the title and both enjoyed it to varying degrees.

So how about Lest Darkness Fall, a title specifically mentioned in the illustrious (or notorious) Appendix N? This one fell into my lap not too long ago in my secondhand bookstore adventures, but I must admit The Appendix N Book Club’s recent coverage is what really spurred me to give it a read.


Long-story-short, I enjoyed it. Whereas I gave The Tritonian Ring a 3/5, I think I’d throw Lest Darkness Fall an extra point or half, putting it somewhere in the 3.5-4/5 range. Pretty solid.

Interestingly, there’s not a whole lot of scifi or fantasy going on in this one. The premise of the story is lifted none-too-subtly from Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and the hook is nothing grander than a bolt of lightning. Is it magic? Is it some kind of science (‘a la Frankenstein)? Who knows? Ultimately it’s irrelevant.

*Minor spoilers*

The retelling of a modern man thrust back in time, equipped only with his wits and a superior mental store of knowledge makes for a fun tale. There’s no (real) sorcery, no aliens or lost civilizations; not even any fellow time-travelers. But our American protagonist, Martin Padaway, must build a new life and achieve the lofty goal he sets for himself.

Reading about the economic and political dealings of a literal man out of time may not do it for everyone. There are some fight scenes and Padaway unwittingly finds himself in military command, but most of his victories come in the form of social manipulations and maneuverings. If you’re all about ACTION, this is another one you may want to give a skip.

*Medium-Spicy Hot Spoilers*

I have to say the story started down points with me because of the whole flawed premise. No, not random time travel that happens right after it’s posited by a random dude. That’s fine. It’s the idea that this archaeologist thought he had to save the world from the so-called “Dark Ages.” The idea that the time period after the fall of the Roman Empire was a historic black hole devoid of scientific and cultural progress may be a popular misconception that completely ignores the accomplishments of the Byzantine Empire and other parts of Western Europe, but…

De Camp was a history guy and he should have known better. And maybe he did, but he apparently considered Classical Rome some sort of apex. Still, it sticks in my craw to get this from the guy who reputedly criticized Howard’s works for not being historically realistic enough.

His disregard for religion in general was also pretty clear. The fights between various ancillary characters regarding different forms of Christianity (orthodox versus a number of different heretical branches) were sometimes entertaining, but more often I found myself put off by their silliness. Padaway himself didn’t really seem to see religion as anything more than a kind of tribal classification. “I’m a Congregationalist. It’s the closest thing we have to (insert religion) in America” became a gag line to be supplied whenever anyone asks him about his creed.

Perhaps this is why I didn’t find Padaway to be that compelling of a character. He’s got his principles, sure – he tries not solve his problems non-violently where possible, and he doesn’t pursue revenge when the opportunity is open to him. But he is a “modern man” in the sense that he doesn’t seem to give much thought to ideals or powers greater than himself (aside from the overarching goal of “avoiding the fall of Rome to the darkness!!”

Contrary to the Appendix N Bookclub guys, who sometimes take the time to identify “problematic” elements in these stories (to be fair Hoi seems to be more circumspect in this), I wasn’t offended by the end of the story, in which Padaway (a) realized he was a big-shot now and didn’t need to put up with women he wasn’t not completely enamored with (b) sent Justinian a letter advising him that he may want to nip Islam in the bud before it’s born (c) merely started taxing slavery rather than trying to immediately end the practice.

Padaway did eventually become a little full of himself, but I saw his behavior as somewhat of an adaptation to his new environment. It’s well and good to judge by today’s standards, but when you’re living in a rough-and-tumble world where might makes right and you want to survive, you build and display power.

As to the criticism that he was a little too good and knowledgeable, I agreed. It didn’t ruin the story for me, as he did encounter failures. He couldn’t produce a working clock. He couldn’t get gunpowder to work. It took a lot of trial and error to produce usable paper. Still, I did find myself thinking “who the hell is this guy?” Archaeologist who knows how to build a printing press, a stink bomb, a superior horse collar, a crossbow (ok that one I can maybe buy), brandy distillation, etc?


And he seemed to know certain historical occurrences almost to the day. “This deposed king should be returning to Rivella tomorrow.” Come on.

But those points aside, there was a lot to enjoy. His Arian friend the banker was a fun, if silly, character. I was pleased to see Belisarius make an appearance (though Justinian’s order prompting him to join Padaway was ridiculous). The story itself wasn’t overly long and moved at a decent pace. Though it was light on action, it had plenty of conflict. If you’re a fan of the kinds of stories in which a protagonist must think and bluff his way out of most sticky situations (I almost want to invoke Asimov, but his style is more serious than de Camp’s), you may enjoy Lest Darkness Fall.

In the context of Appendix N, I must admit this one more than any of the other entries I’ve read had me scratching my head. My first thought was “NPCs and hirelings (or whatever they’re called)” because this story’s got tons of them. Appendix N Bookclub talked about economics and world building, which I think is a great takeaway. When Jeffro did his retrospective on this story, he talked about domain-level play and provided quite an extensive write-up of in-game applications of some of its elements.

Bottom line: this wasn’t one of my favorite Appendix N reads, but I’m glad I picked it up. Enjoyable without being a masterpiece. But when you’re talking about part of body of work that’s of a high baseline quality, not being the best isn’t shameful.