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

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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

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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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Thoughts on Berserker

I wrote a little about Berserker last week. Though the series isn’t specifically name-dropped in Appendix N (Saberhagen does get an “et al,”), I thought it was quite good and a spiffy intro to his stuff. My enjoyment of the first installment may have contributed to my Black Friday purchasing decisions (Changeling Earth and the Complete Book of Swords are other Saberhagen works).

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Last time I said this of Berserker:

So far, this is a collection of short stories about Man’s war against a fleet (?) of semi-autonomous, intelligent, world-sized machines that fly around in space trying to exterminate all life. These machines, known as berserkers, are clever, cruel, and unpredictable, and seem to have been unleashed upon the universe by a race of militant conquerors. And humans are the only space-faring race with the nads to put up a fight. Great stuff. So far the stories remind me a bit of Asimov’s Foundation stories, with more action. Each one features a human or humans pitted up against the dreaded berserkers. So far the humans always prevail in some way – by outwitting the machines, defeating them by sheer determination, or perhaps being strategically spared only to kindle a resolve to FIGHT.

I still think that’s a pretty apt description of the book. A few further thoughts here. *Spoiler warning!*

Saberhagen didn’t take a lot of time to develop particularly deep characters across the book, which isn’t surprising given the short story format. Still, characters are varied enough and you do see a few carryovers. Hemphill is a reliable and pragmatic solider, and steady if not especially likable. Mitch Spain, the part-time writer, part-time marine, also does a serviceable job as one of the generic, heroic, fighting men of Mars. Then you’ve got Johann Karlsen – berserker’s bane and warrior saint; best hope of humanity against the killer robots.

The main draw of the berserker stories is seeing Saberhagen’s different takes on the central theme of man against machine. In many cases, men manage to outwit the berserkers. The entry story provides just such an example – with the protagonist doing a bit of quick thinking and throwing together an improvised system to trick the berserker into thinking its mind-ray is ineffective, buying the humans the time they need for their third attack ship to arrive. The last story bookends perfectly on that theme, with Karlsen coming chillingly close to death but being shrewd enough to test his rescuers before admitting them into his pod.

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Not all of the tales highlight the courage or wisdom of humanity. Some show the darker side of man. One such story (which was perhaps more on the boundary), follows a man dubbed “Goodlife,” who was raised and brainwashed by a berserker to serve as a repair tech. Even he, though, a pitiful coward and collaborator, ends up ultimately striking a blow for humanity.

I did think there were a couple of weaker stories. I didn’t particularly care for the story about the Jester. Writers like to experiment – I know this and I appreciate it. But the humorous tone of this one story was out of key and clashed with the overall feel of the book. The idea of a harmless berserker, ignorant of the meanings of “life” or how to destroy it was an amusing one, but the image of berserker robots slipping on banana peels and hurling fruit and pies just wasn’t in keeping with the idea of humanity engaged in a deadly war for survival against terrible alien machines.

The story of the shepherd boy accidentally saving his planet by stumbling upon a planetary defense console as a berserker was in the process of launching an attack was also a little bland. Much more enjoyable were the stories of human determination, courage, and cleverness.

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The berserker machines themselves were pretty consistently well done. Early on in the book, Saberhagen presents a chilling description of their voices – words strung together from the recordings of captured humans, frequently changing in pitch. The berserkers are cold and calculating. They use cruelty as a tool but prefer to kill quickly and efficiently when they can. They experiment and test their enemies, sometimes taking prisoners for various reasons, and sometimes letting humans go when they calculate it will serve their purposes (such as spreading a disease or undermining the human cause against the berserkers). I found them to be consistently interesting and menacing foes.

Sabgerhagen’s berserker machines are an early speculative example of the “von Neumann probe” – a spacecraft capable of self-replication. They possess automated shipyards for creating more of their kind, and are shown to gather resources for self-repair. Scary stuff.

Berserker was a very cool book and a pretty easy read, and one I’d definitely recommend to scifi fans.

-Bushi

bushi

Frankenstein

Inspired by HP over at Every Day Should Be Tuesday, who has been talking Frankenstein in honor of the season, I decided to give the book a go.

I’m glad that I’d read Dracula a couple years back; Frankenstein was, superficially and stylisticly, a similar kind of beast to tackle: Victorian era English, very wordy and frilly, and somewhat more philosophical than you generally find in this kind of fiction these days. Although Frankenstein and its monster are usually tossed into the horror bin, and the story certainly was an early contributor to the genre (and a forerunner to weird fiction), I found it more of a tragedy with horror and science fiction elements. It is interesting to note that certain critics do point to Frankenstein as the first science fiction novel (and Jeffro asked me about this on Twitter). Looking at the definition and key elements of scifi, I have trouble arguing against that assertion. For my part I’d just say it doesn’t really feel like a science fiction story. The scifi element is central to the story and yet seems almost incidental. Had Victor animated his creation with sorcery rather than science, the main story could probably still have unfolded relatively unchanged.

A few further thoughts to share. *Moderate spoilers head.*

My, how emo Victor Frankenstein is, and how selfish. Though we’re constantly told how virtuous and attractive a human being he is, he seems to focus an awful lot on his own guilt and tortured feelings. When Justine is about to be executed for the crimes his monster committed (and at this point Frankenstein doesn’t have the courage to come forth and confess what he had done):

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Justine’s tortures did not equal his own. Poor Victor. Meanwhile Justine is trying to comfort her friends, though she herself is about to be put to death. I found this passage particularly moving, actually. It’s interesting that Victor is perhaps the least sympathetic character of the book, despite all the loss he endures.

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Hearing her words, Victor continues to dwell on his own grief.

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The best part of the story, which takes a while to get to, is the monster’s narration. Actually quite eloquent and articulate, he describes his awakening to life, his encounters with humanity, and his joys and pains. Seeing the world through his eyes, I thought, provided a deeper and more thoughtful reading experience than the woes of Victor in his dangerous pursuit of knowledge and godhood.

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Incidentally, the monster doesn’t hate fire. This was one of several misconceptions spread by the 1931 film.

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He learns of virtue and vice. And despite Victor’s condemnation of his creation, when the monster initially awakens to the realities of saintliness and sin, he chooses to be good and kind.

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One must wonder what good Frankenstein’s monster could have done for the world, had he been accepted by man or at least by a man. The creature, in listening in on his neighbors and learning from them, proved himself not only kind, but incredibly intelligent and quick to understand. Had he only received spiritual guidance and moral formation…

(By the way, I’ll note that the following passage proves somewhat problematic, and I debated excluding it. Although Shelley compensates somewhat by being rightly critical of America and her colonists, she is awfully bigoted against Asians and later Muslims. Perhaps we should consider revising Frankenstein).

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The abandoned monster, spurned again and again by humanity, eventually takes out his rage and hate on Victor and his family. At this point I don’t know that I fully blame Victor, as I don’t know that I’d be able to forgive and embrace someone who murdered friends or family of mine. However the monster is pitiful indeed, and his entreaties for acceptance and companionship are stirring.

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Eventually Frankenstein’s monster asks Victor to create a female companion, that the two may run away and live together in self-imposed exile, and achieve some degree of happiness. Victor at first resists, then relents and agrees to do so. He takes forever and despairs and moans, but eventually gets on with his work. It was at this point that I thought about how in his initial creation and then his second attempt, he was actually collecting body parts and storing them at his living space. We can suspend some disbelief here, but still. Ew.

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And this second time, he’s actually carrying this stuff around with him in England. Good thing his buddy never noticed the reek.

Well, Victor decides to be a prick, after thinking about how his new creation could be just as evil or more evil than his first, and how the two could wreck devastation upon mankind. I think he’s being melodramatic.

At any rate, he seals his fate by tearing up the pieces of the yet unliving female companion and defying his creature. The monster, enraged, proceeds to exact revenge upon his creator. He kills his friend, he kills his wife, and then Victor’s father dies of grief.

Ultimately Victor, seeking revenge upon the monster, expires in his pursuit. Rather than rejoicing and going on to do more evil, the monster grieves and expresses remorse.

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It’s a lot easier to feel bad for the monster, who was perhaps emotionally closer to a child than a man, and without any love or guidance, rejected by all. That’s what you get for being a dick, Victor.

I’ll also note that there was no assistant, no Igor character. Another invention of the film!

Frankenstein was a good read and certainly worthwhile for anyone interested in the classics or in the evolution of fiction. Now I need to read something a little quicker-paced and actiony, though. Maybe that Dickson book I’ve had in my bag, untouched, for week.

-Bushi

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Thoughts on Star King

I’ve been accumulating so many reading materials of late that I had resolved to take a breather before buying anything else. I don’t think that’s going to hold, unfortunately.

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Despite having only just finished reading my second Vance story, I think I may be a fanboy now. There’s something I find truly engrossing about his work. Even with those long chapter introductions that I’m not always a fan of, the skill with which he builds his worlds is amazing to me.

There are some writers (Herbert with Dune stands out to me) who don’t seem to make up their worlds; rather they gradually reveal them to the you, as if these were real places and people. Everything fits together and feels organic. It is just believable. Doesn’t always happen for me these days with modern writers, so I’m glad to be discovering these old greats.

I was recently part of a Twitter scrum in which Asimov came up. There were some strong opinions expressed.

This conversation, along with some similar threads out there in the blogosphere, led me to realize another commonality among some of my favorite scifi authors (among which I would count both Vance and Asimov).

It’s been posited that Asimov fell under a Hemingwaysian influence – that is, he became very frugal and spartan with his word usage. I did notice that in the past, though I didn’t make the connection to Hemingway. I would brazenly assert, however, that such a characteristic isn’t all that dissimilar from the style of Jack Vance, once you delve beneath the surface. Vance doesn’t skimp on his descriptors, but I haven’t felt like he overdoes it with unnecessarily long or drawn-out blocks of text. I would say that what I like about these writers is their sense of word economy. In a technical sense, this means no awkward or bumbling phrases or sentences. No glaringly unneeded words. But beyond this, it means they employed the language to achieve their desired effect. For Vance, this may mean a few beautiful and well-flourished sentences painting the image of a haunting alien world. For Asimov, it may be that his focus is entirely on captivating dialogue and intrigue; he illustrates the very basics of a scene and leaves the reader’s imagination to color in the details. Two very different but masterful manipulations of language to tell a story, and neither goes beyond what they deem necessary to convey the essence of his tale.

Star King, the first book in the Demon Princes series, lays the foundation for a very simply-premised revenge story. In Kirth Gersen, we get one of those almost-Gary Stu protagonists that I’ve waxed about – deadly, intelligent, brave, but not invincible. We see him outmaneuvered at times, and we also see him struggle with the ladies. But he’s a winner; he perseveres, and though he can be a little bit of a bastard, he tries to follow his moral compass, meting out cold vengeance upon the wicked and sparing whatever compassion he can for innocents caught up in his orbit.

Vance also did well marrying the scifi and hardboiled detective genres. Gersen does some solid sleuthing without seeming unreasonably lucky or brilliant, and we’re provided some building suspense as he tries to pick out the villain that’s right under his nose.

Next up on the docket is the second Witcher book, but I’ll be back to the Demon Princes soon. The first entry was a great story, even as a standalone. I’ll be tracking down the sequels.

-Bushi

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