Libertarians in Space: The Burning Bridge

I had a long train ride home yesterday and so I burned through a shortish Poul Anderson story I’d picked up some time ago free for Kindle.

It’s interesting – to many of the Appendix N crowd, Anderson is probably best known for his fantasy epic the Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions. But if you do a little searching, he wrote a lot of scifi. Some of that is on display in his last Appendix N entry, the High Crusade, but genre was a lot less well-(or rigidly)-defined back then, and I’m not really sure I’d call that particular story scifi.

“The Burning Bridge,” which is a single short story from the collection Orbit Unlimited, presents us with the story of a fleet of colony ships on their way to the inhospitable-sounding world of Rustum, a planet with 1.5x Earth gravity, an alien ecology, and 20 light years of space separating it from the rest of humanity. The colonists, a group of people called Constitutionalists, are scientists and freedom-lovers (“archaists”) that have decided to leave Earth in light of its increasingly oppressive government.

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Suddenly a message reaches the fleet – the government has decided not to proceed with its “educational decree,” the last straw that set the 3,000 travelers on their exodus. Now the fleet must decide whether to proceed on their mission or to return home to Earth.

Of course, there are complications. Perhaps the most pressing is the consideration of time. Because of the workings of space travel, in two months the ships will have reached the “Point of No Return,” whereupon stopping and reversing course will actually take longer than proceeding to Rustum before the ships and their crew return to Earth. And because of the relativity principle of lightspeed, each day they continue means weeks or months more will have passed for Earth.

Admiral Coffin’s first instinct is to complete his mission, but he must wrestle with his compunction to grant the colonists and crew a say in their ultimate fate, and the practicalities and possible consequences of doing such. For one thing, it would be logistically impossible to rouse each of the 3,000 passengers in order to hold a vote. Furthermore, can Earth’s message be trusted? And can the colonists themselves, granted this perhaps false hope of returning to the comforts of their old home, be trusted to make the best decision for themselves and for humanity?

I won’t reveal what ultimately happens, but I will say that certain elements remind me of Gordon Dickson’s Mission to Universe, which would be published four years after Orbit Unlimited.

Coffin himself is a somewhat interesting character in what he represents. His name reflects his morose persona and the mournful state of his existence. A Christian in a world of heathens and pagans, he mourns for his faith and the razing of his father’s church to make way for a Buddhist temple. An aging spaceman in a time when Earth seems to be turning inward and losing its interest in the stars, he mourns his dying career.

This wasn’t the best scifi I’ve ever read, and if ACTION is thing that really gets you going, this one isn’t for you. Still, there is plenty of conflict, and the world Anderson paints draws you in and makes you want to learn more about it. It’s a nice little read, and I imagine it’s even better in the context of being one part of a larger story.

-Bushi

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Worth a Watch: The Babysitter (2017)

Despite my growing fondness for weird tales and Gothic fiction, I’m still not really that much of a “horror fan.” A lot of modern horror movies are too reliant on cheap scares (oh shit something popped out and there was really loud string music!) and also I like being able to sleep at night without dwelling on dark and terrifying alternate realities.

But I do make allowances, particularly for horror movies that some might not even consider real horror. Netflix’s teen horror comedy The Babysitter is such a one. The trailer looked kind of goofy in an Evil Dead kind of way and gave off a sort of late-80’s-early-90’s camp flick vibe.

I gave it a viewing last week and on the Bushi Binary Watch Scale, I give it a 1 for “Watch.” Without saying too much about the plot, it’s able to successfully build and maintain tension while scattering in plenty of humor. While there are certainly a few gaping holes should you make the mistake of taking the story too seriously and there are silly moments, I wouldn’t call it a silly movie.

A word of caution – there’s a bit of dirty language, and that girl-girl make-out scene featured in the trailer does carry on a little bit longer in the film. It doesn’t get much more graphic than that, though, with the exception of a very brief scene with a couple in bed and a rather unsexy handjob apparently going on under the covers.

Aside from that, of course there’s gratuitous blood and violence. But in a fun way.

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Pictured: Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams

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Kaiju commented that it is definitely an homage to classic slasher films like Halloween. Personally I can’t point to any of that, but it did feel like a throwback to growing up in the 80’s and 90’s. The wardrobe and the cultural references were dead-on. There’s even a “hot girl getting in the pool” scene!

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If any of this sounds up your alley and you’ve got a Netflix subscription, go check it out! There are definitely worse ways to spend an hour and a half. Like watching Mazes and Monsters.

Oh, and Bee’s SF Dream Team kind of sucks. Picard is a waste of a slot!

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-Bushi

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Rogue Wut

So I finally watched Rogue One because it’s on Netflix and why not. Just a warning up front – I’m going to spoil the hell out of this thing, so if you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want anything “ruined” for you, skip this post!

Now, I didn’t think the movie was bad, per se. The sets were pretty good and the costume design was well done. I didn’t hate the characters as much as I expected I would, and I even felt bad when Almost-Jedi and his buddy Big Gun Guy died.

There was quite a lot to pick apart, though. It’s been done before, but you haven’t had the pleasure of reading my particular nitpicks, so. Here we go, with some of my thoughts as I was watching:

1. The film starts off with blue milk. Oh, this is going to be that kind of film. Oh…

It seems this is what we’re going to get from Star Wars movies now, and we saw it coming in The Force Awakens. We’re going to be served up fan service galore! Since the writers are incapable of coming up with new witticisms and/or the actors aren’t up to delivering them in memorable fashion (instead we get garbage like “Rebellions are built on hope.”) rest assured that you’ll continue to hear “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” at least once or twice in every new film.

The droid did have a few good lines, at least, and I’m glad the writers either resisted the temptation (or it didn’t occur to them) to reuse “Never tell me the odds!”

2. I’m glad to see Mads Mikkelson going more mainstream. I like his work, generally. Still, a genius scientist? What, was the Rock unavailable for the role?

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3. Good to see stormtroopers are still and always will be useless unless deployed in the hundreds and with heavy support.

 

4. Oh good, Mon Mothma. Can’t get enough of her. (?)

This goes back to the fan service bit. While I enjoyed the fact that Red Leader was either the same dude from a New Hope or else looked and sounded really damn close, I didn’t need Mothma and Tarkin to be major characters just because hey I KNOW WHO THEY ARE WOOOOOOO!

 

5. CGI has come a long way, but it’s still not a great tool in the place of real people. It’s true that Peter Cushing cut a pretty ghoulish Tarkin even when he was alive, but in Rogue One it looked like they dug him up and found some necromancer to reanimate his corpse. I found his appearances jarring and not at all natural-looking. Thank God CGI Leia was only on screen for all of 5 seconds.

 

6. The pilot dude who was mind-raped by the tentacle beast – didn’t Saw say the side effect was losing your mind? Meh, whatever! Details!

 

7. Speaking of Saw, he was pretty lame. What a waste of Forest Whitaker.

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8. I thought Felicity Jones actually did a decent job with what she was given. I don’t see the “fish face” thing. Also the film and her character weren’t as “girl power!”-y as all the marketing material led me to believe. True – the part where she beats up a bunch of Stormtroopers with a baton is absurd, but so is the blind monk beating them up with his stick. This just reinforces the fact that Stormtroopers and their cosmetic armor are the worst.

The main problem was really…why should I care about Jyn? Or any of the characters? We got a glimpse of some humanity when she viewed her father’s holo message. Ip Man the blind force monk was likable enough, but neither he nor his companion were really fleshed out all that much. The droid was funny sometimes. The pilot was a dude. Cassian (I seriously didn’t even remember his name – had to look it up) was introduced to us in a very scumbaggy way – getting news from an informant and then murdering him.

The messaging of the film was inconsistent and off-kilter. At first the writers seemed to want to tell us that there are no good guys – just bad guys and less bad guys. But then they seemed to realize they’d lose the audience with a bunch of bland, half-assed miscreants, so they tried to make them somewhat likable. By then, though, half the film had already been wasted.

Cassian and Jyn actually had a little bit of romantic chemistry going at the end of the movie, but by then it was too late and didn’t matter. And the dude didn’t even kiss her as the giant wave of destruction approached to kill them. Lame.

 

9. The ending was forced and stupid. I don’t mean the ending where all the protagonists die – there is actually some argument to be made for that kind of ending, I think, though it’s more compelling when you know and like the characters. I mean the part where a bunch of rebel soldiers play hot potato with the Death Star plans and then the Admiral Ackbar stand-in’s capital ship spits out Princess Leia’s blockade runner.

First off, back on Yavin IV there’s a scene where some peon tells Mon Mothma that there’s a battle going on and Fish Admiral is already on his way. And then we are treated to fan service of R2D2 standing with 3PO as the latter complains about not being informed of military deployment. But they’re supposed to be on the ship! Unless Leia makes a pit stop back on Yavin IV (in which case the rebels would already have the plans by a New Hope), the continuity is messed up! Did no one think of this?

Also, why the hell would Princess Leia, a diplomat and important Rebel leader, be traveling into the thick of battle on the Admiral’s flagship? Not like she’s got anything to contribute.

In conclusion, Rogue One wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good (comparatively, anyway). These new Star Wars films just don’t get me excited. There’s a lot going on and a lot of action, but…it just falls flat. Is it just me?

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-Bushi

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Eric John Stark: Conan in space!

Last week I wrote a piece over at Castalia House talking about my experience thus far with Leigh Brackett. My interest in the Queen of Space Opera was initially piqued not really because of her inclusion in Appendix N, but because she apparently was involved in writing the script for The Empire Strikes Back, in addition to several other old kickasses like Rio Bravo, Rio Lobo, and El Dorado.

Clearly the woman knew how to write a romping good action story.

It took me a while to discover and appreciate her depth. Having read several of her short stories now, I can say with conviction that she’s not over-hyped by her fans in the Scientifiction scene. Her writing is not only engaging; I daresay it’s got an imaginativeness to rival that of any other pulp/Appendix N author I’ve read thus far.

And now that I’ve finished reading the first Eric John Stark book (one of Brackett’s premier recurring characters), I feel comfortable saying this – Stark is Conan in Space!

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Let me first expand upon this a little before crouching into a defensive posture to clarify that perhaps provocative assertion.

Stark is an elemental man of action. If he isn’t outright called a barbarian, he is portrayed as one. Though possessing of a keen wit and sharp, almost animal instinct, he is prone to rage and bloodlust. There’s one point in the story where Stark advances to kill an enemy who had unsuccessfully attempted to eliminate him (and in a rather underhanded way), despite knowing that the man is protected and a deathly punishment is certain. Stark doesn’t care, or rather he is beyond self-control.

He’s also both intelligent and charismatic. The whole plot of the Secret of Sinharat is spurred by a warlord’s invitation for Stark to sign on as a military trainer. Someone’s gotta turn those undisciplined hordes into Fighting Men ™!

None of this really surprises me, as I’ve read and been told that Brackett was a big fan of Rob E Howard, and I think that shows in her style. I don’t think her writing possesses the same bardic flair as Howard’s, but that’s akin to pointing out that Jason wasn’t as physically strong as Hercules.

Now I want to make a point of saying that I make this Conan comparison in the best way possible. You see, there’s a lot of Conan pastiche out there. A LOT. And plenty of it is sloppy, uninspired, and/or lacking in execution. Eric John Stark is none of those things. Just from the first Stark tale, I can tell he’s different enough from Conan to be his own, unshadowed character. Plus he’s black!

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Of course being that I haven’t read Tarzan yet, maybe I’m all wrong about this and Stark is actually Tarzan in space!

 

Addendum: H.P. and I finally come to almost the exact same conclusion on something!

-Bushi

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Some thoughts for the King: King David’s Spaceship

Last summer over at the Castalia House blog, Jeffro posted about A Spaceship for the King as a largely unrecognized inspiration for the Traveller pen and paper game. My interest was piqued by his exposition, and I later recognized author Jerry Pournelle as the same gent who co-wrote the Mote in God’s Eye – another great scifi novel I read some years back. As a matter of fact, the two books happen to belong to a larger series penned by Pournelle in occasional collaboration with fellow scientifictioneer Larry Niven.

Late last year I picked up a copy of King David’s Spaceship – an expanded version of A Spaceship for the King (which was originally a three part serial). You know, this one turned out to be a great example of why you sometimes have to force yourself through an opening chapter or two. I was initially a little turned off by what I was reading – a typical fantasy tavern scene, complete with giggling and squealing serving wenches being pinched as they served “countless” drinks to soldiers and other handsy patrons. To be fair to Pournelle, when he wrote this thing originally, it probably wasn’t such an overused trope.

Once past that somewhat clumsy opening, though, I had very little to complain about. To the contrary, I found King David’s Spaceship a most enjoyable read, with a lot to unpack. A few further thoughts, then, from my notes (*Spoilers to follow*):

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1. Pournelle did a skillful job of crafting conflict without any real villains, perhaps aside from the Moorish barbarian horde, who were arguably relatively unimportant characters to the story. The Imperials and more specifically the Navy are painted as the chief antagonists throughout most of the book. But when we get a glimpse of matters from their perspective, what do we see? Bean counters and bureaucrats; a professor; a young sailor; a petty, stick-up-his-ass middling officer. These are flawed, but not evil men. Many of them are well-intentioned.

Physically, to MacKinnie and his band, Dougal and his fellow Samualans ultimately pose as much of a threat if not more.

2. This is a story of a determined group of primitives (“colonials” they are derisively called by one Imperial) triumphing, in a way, against an overwhelmingly technologically superior foe. In spirit, I found it somewhat reminiscent of Anderson’s the High Crusade.

“Superiority” is a slippery thing. Where the Empire is strong, rich, and advanced, it is also slow. The Imperials are constrained by their highly ordered bureaucracy, laws, and political intricacies. And because their Navy is staffed by men who are the product of such a society, they are prone to complacency and routine. They are vigilant of enforcing their rules, but often lack the vision to anticipate such as the “colonials” are able to pull off.

3. As Jeffro noted in his piece, the Catholic Church (referred to as “New Rome”) is featured prominently and without the malicious undertones or even explicit hostility that increasingly pervades much of modern SFF. Clerics in this story are practical yet seemingly sincere in their faith and benevolence.

4. I found the characters to be serviceable, but nothing to write home about. Our main man is a competent soldier and commander. We’re told that he attracts followings and engenders supreme loyalty in his men, though we’re not really shown very much of this charisma. His best buddy and manservant is a competent lieutenant and superb fighter. The protagonist’s eventual girlfriend is a competent…logistician? She’s certainly written to be a “strong” woman — brave, willful, not stunningly beautiful but attractive. The scientist and the scholar in the group are also competent, with a little bit of flavor text to tell us that one is portly and one is somewhat of a priss. The native captain and mercenaries that the protagonists recruit on Makassar are also competent. Haven’s spymaster is competent, as is the King and his minister and the head of the University.

That’s what we get – competent characters, some of whom are well fleshed out and some who are less so. And that’s fine. But come the end of the story, I didn’t really feel attached to any of them. They played their roles in the plot, and I suppose that was enough.

5. When it comes to the “realisticness” of what constitutes hard science fiction or military science fiction, I’m no authority. But still, this felt like a good example of both. A lot of science was discussed and implemented by the characters. Some of the most interesting parts of the story, for me, were the military tactics employed by MacKinnie to liberate the Temple from the barbarians.

6. There were a few scenes that felt a little sloppily executed. In particular, this scene kind of bothered me:

Now I readily admit, this is a such a minor story point…it winds up not even really being important to any of the proceeding events. Still – this assassin has time to rush through a crowd, lop off a pikeman’s arm, presumably slay several others, take a javelin to the chest and pull it out while still attacking…let’s for a moment set aside the improbability of one man with a knife being able to get so far through a crowd of armed soldiers. Hal , the competent lieutenant and superb fighter, has no time to draw his sword during all that? Come on. Even if the assassin was able to accomplish all that in a few seconds – how long does it take to draw a blade, especially for a seasoned soldier?

Still, it can be overlooked in light of the rest of the book. Since getting into Vance and Anderson and the like, I’ve become a fan of this implementation of science fiction – high tech mixed with low tech; swords and spaceships. It’s a lot of fun.

If I were rating King David’s Spaceship, I’d probably give it 4/5. Good stuff.

-Bushi

bushi

Foray into Fritz Leiber: Gather, Darkness!

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Gather, Darkness!, my first Leiber book, and the perfect example of a story I can simultaneously dislike and credit with having some solid writing and interesting ideas.

Set in a distant future that has seen the collapse of society and subsequent rebuilding into a Medieval facade, Gather, Darkness! tells a bleak, subversive, and rather cynical story. The Hierarchy, an evil, futuristic version of the Church, rules over the masses using a false religion as a means of control. The common folk toil endlessly to support the often luxurious lifestyle of the priest lords and their lieutenants, the deacons, who see themselves as providing order and stability and preventing society from spiraling downward into oblivion once again. It’s all a big con, though. Miracles abound, but are in reality nothing more than scientific devices and applications beyond the ken of the peons. Newly inducted priests are slowly taught that there is no Great God; it’s all a farce.

So on the one hand, we have an evil stand-in for the Catholic Church. On the other, we have the Witchcraft, an underground resistance, of sorts. Except they employ the same tactics as the Hierarchy, disguising their technology and weapons as magic. Satanic magic. That’s right, the “good guys” in this book profess to worship Sathanas, the futuristic devil. Their leader, shrouded in secrecy, takes the name Asmodeus. Their goal – to topple the priesthood and ultimately reveal that both God and the Devil are fictions, and to education and elevate the populace once again.

Aside from carrying some rather subversive messages (which is nothing new now, though in 1943 this may have been quite revolutionary), there are some politics and quite a bit of intrigue within the two main factions. Unfortunately the setting is the real main character here, and not in a good way. The players in the story – chiefly Armon Jarles, the Black Man, Sharlson Naurya, and Goniface, are rather shallow and largely uninteresting. They serve to carry the plot forward, but are one-dimensional the mostly unsympathetic.

Leiber did craft some cool, noteworthy scifi ideas: “angels,” which were basically flying mech suits, “wrath rays,” which were  disintegration beams, and a scientifictional take on the concept of the witch’s familiar.

Classically, familiars were minor spirits or demons that took the form of animals (most famously the black cat) and served witches and warlocks. In Gather, Darkness!, the characters explain that familiars supped upon the blood of their masters for sustenance – a kind of symbiotic deal. In the story’s reality, however, familiars were scientific creations like all other forms of magic; the result of genetic manipulation and cloning.

The explanation for the telepathic link between the master and familiar was a little strained, but the rest of it was an interesting take on the concept. Particularly the biological parts.

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There were also a couple of scenes that reminded me of a part from the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. In the book, there’s a nefarious priest tasked with reprogramming particularly problematic priests or persons who may be useful to the Hierarchy. When he goes to work on Armon Jarles, Jarles tries clinging to his ideals and memories as they’re pulled from his mental grasp. Later on, the Black Man hits upon a more effective defense in taking the opposite approach – emptying his mind. Incidentally in Flash Gordon, Zarkov was able to resist being brainwashed by focusing on song lyrics. Groovy.

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Gather, Darkness! possessed some elements that I’m sure must have been innovative for their time, and some ideas that even now struck me as original and praiseworthy.

On the whole, though, the story fell flat. The transparent critique of religion and the Church specifically, along with a lack of any real, likable hero just isn’t my cup of tea. The plot of the story is decent enough, but it’s not very uplifting. Sure, the good guys win eventually, but to what end? If there is no God and no moral law, who determines what is good, what is just? The erstwhile forces of darkness, worshipers of fake-Satan? The Black Man even says at the end that there is much work to be done, as many of their peers will no doubt want to set up their own ruling government similar to the one they had just overthrown. “Burn it all down” is well and good when you’re toppling an oppressive government, but what comes next? And if the answer is a more egalitarian society, why? Why do all men deserve to be treated equally? Leiber is silent here.

When it comes to Fritz Leiber, I expect I’ll enjoy Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser a lot more than Gather, Darkness! From what I’ve heard, it sounds as if at some point he learned how to write entertaining characters, so I’ll look forward to that.

 

-Bushi

bushi

Heroes, witchcraft, and more Amber

As I go into a busy couple of work weeks before the holiday lull, I’ve been focusing most of my “game time” recently on Heroes of the Storm (with a little Dominions IV on weekends). For a long stretch I’d been sticking to Quick Match (casual play), but now something inside me has reawakened and I’ve been jumping back into ranked. Perhaps it’s the changing meta or watching pro and semi-pro games online that have whetted my appetite.

 

Side note: it’s a little off-putting that so many people don’t know how to properly pronounce “aegis.” With the last few hero releases, the meta (that is, the popular play style and character picks) have definitely come to revolve more around mobility and lockdown. Varian, for example, may not have a super high win rate right now (mysteriously), but he’s incredibly difficult to fight against. That short cooldown stun and dash plus his solid damage mitigation make him a high threat in both solo lane dueling and team fights. Keep your distance or you’re likely to get chunked or erased.

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Luckily I haven’t seen a whole lot of Varian in Team League. Unluckily, this is because there are a bunch of other characters who are dominating the scene at the moment and can be incredibly frustrating to play against.

Chen is not one of these, and yet strangely the only two games my team won last night were games in which I went with the Pandaran asshole.

At any rate, I hear the ranked system will undergo an overhaul for season 3, and I’m looking forward to it. Should make Team League a lot more accessible once again.

In other news, I finished up with the Hand of Oberon last night. Onto the Courts of Chaos. I won’t include any spoilers here, but the Amber books do a very nice job of ladling out the intrigue and reveals in never-quite-satiating portions, leaving you always wanting to know more about the setting or the family or who’s plotting to kill who.

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I do not picture Benedict as Fabio with a robo arm.

I’ve also stuffed Fritz Leiber’s Gather, Darkness! into my bag as train reading material. I’m about 40 pages in and so far it’s not really up my alley. Major, organized religions as the bad guys and bad guys as the actual good guys are not usually tropes I enjoy, and we seem to have both going on here. Still, it’s a short book so I’ll power through it and see if something changes my mind.

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Closing thought: I wonder if the scarlet priests were an inspiration for the Forgotten Realms red wizards, visually at the very least.

 

-Bushi

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