Something Alien

I’ve never read anything by Robert Silverberg, but you can only hang with the serious scifi/fantasy for so long before you begin to see his name crop up.

At some point in the past few months, I acquired a copy of Downward to the Earth, a scifi story presumably about alien elephants or some such.

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It’s not a terribly long book, so on a whim I added it to my commute bag. Now I’m a little more than halfway through, and I’m not yet sure what I think of it.

This morning I reached a chilling scene. I think the story has been growing on me, and stuff like this can stick:

Reminiscent of Alien, no? Written almost a decade earlier, though. Of course I’m sure this must be an older idea, inspired by horrible creatures that exist in our own reality. But still, pretty compelling.

-Bushi

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Spoiler-free thoughts on The Forever War

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Joe Haldeman’s Forever War was on my radar for a while, but it actually moved into the queue last year, after seeing HP at Every Day Should Be Tuesday had given it a 5/5. I didn’t actually read HP’s review until now, though, since the writeup is rather meaty and quite spoilery. I’m going to share some more in-depth thoughts, myself, in another post. For now, a few general thoughts.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I read the Author’s Preferred Edition, which apparently restores some material that was originally rejected by Ben Bova and changed when the story was serialized in Analog magazine.

1. It wasn’t what I was expecting. Going into this, I thought I was going to get some straight-up Military SF. Not exactly. HP says “It’s not just a military SF novel, it’s a war novel…” And that’s not wrong.

If I had to categorize it (as we love to do), I’d be tempted to throw it in with 1984 (which was also set against a backdrop of perpetual war; at least so the reader is told), or Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451The Forever War, for me at least, is a dystopian story framed by a futuristic war against an alien race.

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The first time the story shifted away from the military side of things, I was thrown for a major loop. Things get rather bleak, but the Forever War is also very thoughtful and thought-provoking.

2. On that note, there’s a lot of 70’s thinking in the book, especially when it comes to sexuality. Also population growth and bureaucracy. The directions Haldeman goes with these elements wasn’t what I was expecting, though (see #1 above).

3. For a good chunk of the book, I was reminded of both Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. Positives and negatives apply.

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4. It’s quite crunchy on its science (the protagonist is, after all, a physicist). Maybe it’s because I’ve now read enough Niven to kind of gloss over these parts and absorb what I can without getting too hung up on it, but I wasn’t bored by the “sciency” elements, and my eyes did not glaze.

5. The ending was satisfying enough. I’ll leave it at that for now.

I didn’t love it enough to give it a full 5/5, but it was quite a good read. 4.5/5. 

-Bushi

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Culdcept and more Dune sciency stuff

Life flows onward. Care for the larva takes precedence.

I recently picked up a cheap 3DS game that looked interesting. It’s called Culdcept Revolt. Apparently the Culdcept series has been around for a while, though I’d never heard of it.

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Gameplay-wise, it’s something of an ill-begotten spawn. Think Monopoly meets Yugioh meets Magic: The Gathering. In effect it sometimes feels like Mario Party – skill and strategy matter, but the result of a 30-minute match can ultimately depend upon the favor or curse of the Random Number God. But I guess Magic was always subject to that. “Whoops, you drew 10 lands in a row? Learn to shuffle better, scrub.”

But it’s got card collecting and deck building, so it scratches an itch. Don’t get me started on the writing, though. It’s seriously bad.

Ah well, at least it’s turn-based. When you need to be able to respond to the wail of your progeny at a moment’s notice, turns are required. Or at least pausing. Maybe both.

Meanwhile Dune continues to stimulate as I read in bits and squeaks. Back in college, I took a class in sociology and our professor had us read Dune. Herbert is more often recognized for the ecological hardness of his seminal work, but there’s a lot of soft science going on, too. Man, that was a cool class.

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I’m told Herbert really knew ecology. I think it shows. But honestly, I’m not the kind of guy who’s incredibly difficult to convince with this stuff. Throw in the names of some scientific processes, maybe a plausibly-named theory…hey man, sounds sciency to me. “Hard” and “soft” scifi are relative terms, I guess.

Also, is “chromoplastic” a thing? Maybe…? A related element that’s impressed me is the range of invention Herbert utilizes here. He may not have coined all or even most of these gizmos and scifi doodads, but he seems to have picked some good ones that either never reached wide-scale use or else hit critical mass after he threw them in the mix.

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This kind of thing is important, you know? Sure, you can have a good story with blasters and laser swords and plasteel armor and space marines. But that’s all been done. A lot. Don’t underestimate the power of novelty.

Oh, look – “cone of silence.” This thing was popularized by the old 60’s Get Smart TV show, of course, but it was apparently kicking around for at least a decade before that. Herbert himself used the term in a 1955 short story, so Wiki tells meDune was published in 1965, as a reference point.

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I love this stuff, but dang I’ll be glad when I can muster up the wherewithal to dive into something new. Witch World looms.

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-Bushi

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Plasteel in Scifi

Dune is one of those  books – love it or hate it, you must respect its place in “the canon” and the major role it’s played in influencing succeeding SFF works and popular culture.

As I continue my most recent read-through, I continue to pick up on new threads. Read below and see if you spot any scifi tech that’s become somewhat ubiquitous.

Ah-ha – plasteel! I know I’ve seenthis onebefore.

Much like the hypospray, plasteel is apparently a real thing. Perhaps because of its evocative and cool-sounding name it’s been adopted in all sorts of media ever since appearing in…Dune? (Update: Note, see below).

I’ve been unable to find much information about plasteel online, but it was apparently patented by an auto manufacturer in 1973. Likely the material and name were established or in the works for years prior, but Dune‘s 1965 employ of the word predates the patent. Very cool.

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Update: Thanks to my esteemed readers, who in the comments section point out some earlier spottings of “plasteel.”

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It’s still possible that Dune played a part in the popularization of the word, but doesn’t appear to be the originator.

-Bushi

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

-Bushi

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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?

-Bushi

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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!

-Bushi

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