Thursday, April 30, 2009
Actually, I say he's a dilophosaurid, but that's a bit of a contentious statement. He was originally described as a very early carnosaur, and its position in the therapod family tree is still a bit unclear.
Although to the mainstream mind, dinosaurs are synonomous with "really old", I actually think of them as a kind of modern type animal, really. To me, the "really old" faunal assemblages predated the dinosaurs. The first dinosaurs came on the scene at roughly the same time as the first mammals, and I'm firmly in the camp that believes that they had similar physiological advances and were "on the same page", so to speak, as being the two most exciting and happenin' groups of tetrapods on the planet. The dinosaurs took a good 28 million years from their first appearance to their complete domination of the megafaunal assemblages, but once they got there, they didn't let go for another 132 million years. That's a total lifetime of over 160 million years (because I rounded down the fractional million years), and if you count the birds as dinosaurs, as most dinosaur paleontologists are wont to do these days, then they've got 226 million years of seniority, and were running the show for much of that.
So I was a little bit surprised when I put together my timeline, starting in the Devonian when the first tetrapods climbed out of the water and explored, tentatively, the terrestrial world for the first time, and discovered that the pre-dinosaurian "ancient times" passed much more quickly than I thought. Vascular, terrestrial plants barely squeeked in at the end of the Silurian, and didn't really become common or important until during the Devonian. Within 10-15 million years of these first forests, Acanthostega and Ichthyostega, the earliest known tetrapods, are found, a mere 360-370 million years ago. I say mere, because the first dinosaurs and first mammals appeared in the Late Triassic about 228 million years or so ago (well, that's when the earliest ones have been found. They already show some signs of diversity, indicating that they're probably a few million years older, actually). It only took 132-143 million years to get from "the first ever vertebrates made their tentative steps onto land" to "essentially modern faunas dominate the terrestrial ecosystems." And then the dinosaurs stepped in and dominated terrestrial ecosystems for longer than it took to get from "barely more than a fish" to "a dinosaur" in the first place.
For some reason, that realization is both somewhat awe-inspiring and humbling. The staggering age of the world, and the staggering amount of investment in its creation, to get to the point where we could come on the scene, is humbling.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Yeah, see, apparently it got one negative review, and in the course of writing the review, the reviewer made an obviously hyperbolic statement about bribes changing hands to get mediocre books a ton of hype.
And, in an episode that says more about the entitlement felt by a ridiculous people on the internet, all kinds of people were extremely offended by that. Huh? Did anyone seriously think that was serious? I'm struggling to imagine how anyone's capable of percieving that as inappropriate, and coming up blank.
Tastes differ. A reviewer's job is two-fold; one is to describe what's being reviewed so you can make a determination on whether or not you think you'll enjoy it, but the other is to entertain the readers. A bit of exaggeration for comic effect isn't something that anyone should be offended by. The author doesn't particularly seem to be offended (although after going to great pains to say that he's not offended, he does call it rude), the editor who approved the review didn't think twice about it... and yet, all kinds of Joe Blow people (presumably uber-fans of the book itself) were ready to tar and feather this poor reviewer just because she said she didn't like the book, and in fact, found all the hype about it be quite mysterious in origin.
In case you're wondering, yeah---I have little patience for the overly sensitive, and those who feel entitled to some kind of treatment.
According to most commonly accepted cladograms today (I think the Thomas Holtz 2004 cladogram of the tyrranosaurs seems to be the one I see touted most frequently) the tyrannosaurids proper are nested within the tyrannosauroids. Xiongguanlong would be a very late tyrannosauroid leading up to becoming a tyrannosaurid; it's growing in size and scope to be less like the small and gracile early forms and becoming more of a large apex killer. It's been compared to both Alioramus and Appalachiosaurus, the former being a late appearing atypical form that's poorly known (from only a single, incomplete and possibly juvenile specimen) and the latter being an early, long-snouted form that's seen as leading up to the rest of the Late Cretaceous tyrannosaur clan, prior to the tyrannosaurine and albertosaurine split.
I don't know yet that this is an exciting find as far as dinosaur specimens go, or one that changes our understanding of anything, like little Tianyulong that I talked about a few weeks ago, but hey, it's a tyrannosaur, and everyone loves a tyrannosaur, right?
I'm actually a bit atypical there. I mean, I like tyrannosaurs well enough, and what red-blooded dinosaur guy doesn't, but my real love amongst the dinosauria belongs to the carnosaurs. There's something about the big guys, following after and chasing down what seems like it should be impossible prey in the form of the sauropods, that really appeals to me. It's the most classic and iconic dinosaur image I can think of (actually, that'd probably be some sauropod rushing off into the water with a carnosaur standing there impotently bellowing its rage at them from the shore---nobody believes that scenario anymore, though) and therefore a staple of why I love dinosaurs so much in the first place.
It used to be that any big, meat-eating dinosaur was called a carnosaur, but it was probably obvious (even to anyone working at the time) that that couldn't possibly be a natural group. When someone says carnosaur today, they really mean Allosaurus and his cousins, the biggest and most advanced of which are the carcharodontosaurs coming out of South America and West African quarries from the middle of the Cretaceous like Carcharodontosaurus, Giganotosaurus, Mapusaurus and Tyrannotitan. North American Acrocanthosaurus may or may not have been a carcharodontosaur (it may also have been a derived allosaur), and is probably also responsible for the famous Paluxy trackway, where it supposedly attacked a sauropod (probably a Pleurocoelus or possibly a Sauroposeidon.)
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Stay tuned for further developments.
Monday, April 27, 2009
Why do I bring this up? Because I live in Metro Detroit, of course! Also because I have immediate family in the Memphis area (brother) and the Miami area (sister-in-law) so to you I say: better luck next time, chumps! We won!
Errr... maybe that's not something we want to win after all.
One guy answered, flippantly, that it's because women don't sound enough like David Gahan. The more I think about this, though, the more I think that flippant or not, he's absolutely right. The long, long shadow that Depeche Mode casts over synthpop as a whole is hard to ignore. Some of the most successful groups of the late 80s, early 90s and even this decade are unabashedly Depeche Mode imitators, even: Red Flag, Cause and Effect, Camouflage, De/Vision and Mesh.
My own musical taste, personally, has also been indelibly stamped by my love affair with Depeche Mode's music as well. Unlike mainstream music listeners, I actually am a pre-Violator Depeche Mode fan, and while Violator, with the hits "Personal Jesus" and "Enjoy the Silence" is the biggest Depeche Mode ever got, I struggled with the CD for a long time, and still don't like it as much as Some Great Reward, Black Celebration or Music For the Masses---my own interpretation of Depeche Mode's greatest era. I've made my peace with post 80s Depeche Mode, and "Enjoy the Silence" is perhaps the most iconic DM song ever written to me (and I love the B-sides from the Violator era: "Sea of Sin" and "Dangerous" are as good as anything that actually appeared on the album, as far as I'm concerned) and was even quite impressed with their offering from a couple of years ago, Playing the Angel, which was a deliberate return to a pre-Exciter sound. Julie took me to go see the Angel concert tour, which was a long-time desire of mine. I'd seen a lot of guys in concert before, but somehow had always missed Depeche Mode, and since Depeche Mode were quite probably my favorite band ever, that was always kinda weird. Great show, by the way. We saw it in The Palace, so I remember we were joking about throwing drinks and chairs at Martin Gore since the concert wasn't too long after the big Detroit/Cleveland basketball game that had the infamous fight with the fans.
Anyway, I'm starting to ramble. The reason I bring up Depeche Mode now is that they just released a new album, Sounds of the Universe last week. Although I haven't had a chance to pick it up yet, I'm going to this week (I hope; busy schedule), load it up on my mp3 player and give it many, many listens as I drive to and from work as well as as I putter around the house. I will, no doubt, post a track by track review after I've had time to do so, here on the blog.
Friday, April 24, 2009
First Wave: Invention and Golden Age: The genre starts officially in 1911 with the serialization of "Under the Moons of Mars", later novelized as A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs himself was the most prolific writer of planetary romance, with a dozen Mars books, half a dozen Venus books, a series set on the Moon, and a final series that he died before he could get much work done with (Beyond the Farthest Star). Ralph Milne Farley and Otis Adelbert Kline are amongst the others who are part of this first wave, but even Robert E. Howard joined in (with Almuric) and it crosses over into other media with Flash Gordon. By the end of the first wave, it was merging with space opera, and heroes like Leigh Brackett's Eric John Starke straddle the line between the two similar genres. After the failure of the original pulp mags in the 40s, the genre quietly disappeared for several years.
Second Wave: Imitation and Reprint: In the early 60s, Burroughs, Kline, and others were rediscovered and put back into print, along with a lot of other pulp writers (sword & sorcery took off again big-time at this point as well.) A number of imitators popped up, including (but not limited to) Lin Carter (Callisto and Green Star series), L. Sprague de Camp (Planet Krishna series), Mike Resnick (Ganymede series), the aforementioned F. Gardner Fox (Llarn series), Michael Moorcock (The Kane of Old Mars series) and more. Leigh Brackett also trotted Eric John Starke back out (her older stories, revised and lengthened were put back into print) and wrote the best stories he appeared in; the Skaith trilogy. Other than her input, though, this wave was predominantly characterized more by open imitation and repetition of formula rather than by any innovations so much; many of the authors in fact openly acknowledged the fact that they were pure fantasies completely inconsistent with actual conditions on the planets on which they take place (Calliso and Ganymede, for instance, rather overtly do this.) Many of these writers failed to understand what made the original wave so fun in the first place (the wonder and imagination of it) and so along with formulaically repeating the flaws of writers like Burroughs, they also only weakly reflected his strengths. Few of these books are truly good, but they're interesting to read for a bit of historical perspective, I guess. This wave died out with the introduction of two very, very long-lived series that kept on meandering into print long after the subgenre itself had faded again; namely John Norman's Gor books (which later became more infamous for his bizarre and offensive take on sexism, but which started out innocently enough as simple Barsoom knock-offs) and Alan Burt Akers' Dray Prescott series (also known as the Scorpio series, or the Kregen series.)
I don't know if there's enough going on today to posit a third wave, but I'm impressed by books like S. M Stirling's Sky People and In The Court of the Crimson Kings which, while not in an of themselves great books, are at least modern novels with more sophisticated storytelling techniques, that openly and overtly are done in homage to the planetary romance of the past. I think the subgenre could stand this kind of revival; one in which good authors write with interesting characters, less melodramatic plots and a little more attention to verisimilitude.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
I'm glad that I didn't end up buying it, though, as I almost did. Sadly, the book has not aged well and I was unhappy with the experience of reliving it. Many of the reasons that is true were not unexpected for me, but it was still a minor sad experience nonetheless.
The main reason for it, of course, is everything that has happened to dinosaur science since Paul wrote this. It's so obsolete that it's almost painful at times, especially in the catalog of dinosaurs half of the book, which is the real meat of the book anyway. The book predates the cladistic revolution that overtook dinosaurology in the 90s, and made Paul's classification scheme almost laughably out of date (which isn't really fair, because when he proposed it, it wasn't a bad scheme at all.) It predates a lot of the really big, important and significant discoveries of the 90s and 00s, including the entire line of carcharodontosaurs, abelisaurs, and therizinosaurs, it predates the spectacular feathered Yixian finds, the early tyrannosaurs, and more. He's a notorious lumper (at least in this book) eliminating genera right and left, sometimes quite strangely (he dumped Yangchuanosaurus, a derived carnosaur, into Metriacanthosaurus, a basal tetanurine, for instance.)
Although the 90s weren't exactly my "youth" it was near the begining of my adult, revolutionized dinosaur love, following in the wake of Bakker's Dinosaur Heresies and Crichton's (and Spielberg's, for that matter) Jurassic Park. Dinosaurs were sexy and new in a way that they hadn't been even when I was a kid, and although I never really fell out of love with them, it was so much easier to love them at the time Predatory Dinosaurs of the World came out and slapped me upside the head. Sadly, it now feels like a youthful, childish crush compared to what I know since I first read it. I turned the book back in, only partially re-read (I did flip through it and look at all the pictures again, at least) and probably won't bother with it again.
Despite these complaints and/or very hedged and guarded praises, it should be noted that I picked it up yesterday evening while Spencer was at Scouts (about 7:00 PM) and I kept reading nearly straight through until 3:15 AM and the book was finished. Which, in spite of any other problems, is pretty high praise at the end of the day. I've gotten pickier about books I read over the years; if a book can make me do that, and then turn around and have me wondering if I can swing by Borders or Barnes & Noble the next day to pick up the sequel... well, that's a very good thing.
A lot of potential here. It'll never be great literature, but I had fun with it.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
I don't know that I'd need to read Arrow frequently, but it's fun to have read once. Stephenson spent a lot of energy on recreating the language and dialogue of his era which was simultaneously kinda fun to read and kind frustrating and dense. As an early example of swashbuckling action, it's not very evolved. Later writers wrote much more gripping action sequences that Stephenson manages. And the characters are charming although often frustrating due to the spontaneous odd choices. Probably meant to be an example of the mindset of the times, it's still difficult to wrap my head around sometimes. The characters were a bit wooden, however, and could have used some more filling out to really jump off the page and come to life. Everything was a little too romantic adventure, and then near the end when Dick Shelton was supposed to be confronted with the hard reality of his reckless decisions, it seems too forced. And, of course, his reaction to that feeling is even more reckless and foolhardy proclamations. For which a few characters quite rightly start calling him a soft-hearted and soft-headed fool.
As an aside, the old Disney live-action Black Arrow, with Oliver Reed as Sir Daniel Brackley (the main villain of the piece) and Donald Pleasance as his main (treacherous) advisor is a fun movie, but bears relatively scant resemblance to the plot of the book. Next up is Vicki Petterssen's (sic?) Scent of Shadows, of which I've read a chapter or two already. I'm not sure it's going to live up to my hopes of being a demonic-themed Buffy meets Harry Dresden, because there was a somewhat... Twilightish vibe in those early chapters, if that makes sense. A kind of feminine wallowing in emotional helplessness that I find unattractive in novel characters and which I only find in certain works that are very specifically targetted towards a female audience. It's only one book; I don't have to continue the series if I don't like it, and I shouldn't judge the entire thing based on the first thirty or so pages, but we'll see. I'll dutifully report my findings here when I'm done, of course.
After that, I might want something lighter and breezier, so I'm thinking of picking up some of my old Sword & Planet quickie novels, like the Leigh Brackett Skaith books or the F. Gardner Fox Llarn books. And then I'll jump into dense, long, fantasy novels again: The Lies of Locke Lamora and Deadhouse Gates. Not necessarily in that order.
That said, I've never had a problem with characters who were unwilling to actually play the game just because they wrote "evil" somewhere on their character sheet. In fact, it is my intention to completely minimize if not excise alignment from the game. I never have an alignment requirement, and I rarely even care if the PCs pick an alignment or not. As a result, I've had no shortage of really shady characters over the years.
Some notable evilness from past (and current) campaigns: Fulcrum, the evil gnome sorcerer. At one point, in the city of Greyhawk, when a doppleganger attempted to frame us, he just let loose with a fireball on a crowd of peasants in a tavern. Burned most of them to a crisp. We chased the doppleganger into the street and killed him, then Fulcrum framed him for casting the fireball. Since nobody was really alive to contradict him, and all the goody-goody characters weren't witnesses exactly, he got away with it. Although to mollify the cleric of Heironeous, he did raise some money for the widows and orphans. Although he gambled to win it, and ended up losing it all before he actually gave it to them. Nice PR, Fulcrum.
Eladkot was another gnarly little sorcerer. Human. After fighting off a glimmer imp, a peculiar fey that steals the eyes of innocent victims, Eladkot realized that if the eyes were popped back into the victim's head and a simple remove blindness spell cast on them, they'd not only get their vision back, but have some added benefits as well for the trouble of having your eyes in a fey's sockets for a while. He "heroically" volunteered to take the young victim to a cleric to have her eyes returned to her. Needless to say, the brown-eyed Eladkot came back the next morning with green eyes. He defends his actions as saying that he let the poor girl keep his eyes, so she really doesn't have anything to complain about.
That was merely the preview of his evil, though. When they were in the demon-god worshipping pirate town of Blackport, they were recommended to a diviner to get some more information. When they found out that the diviner used anthropomancy (i.e., reading the future in the entrails of sacrificial victims. Human sacrificial victims. Well, humanoid. This is D&D after all.) most of the rest of the party said they wouldn't have anything to do with it. Eladkot, however, snuck out at night, bought the cheapest slave he could find and visited the diviner while the rest of them slept. The diviner---a possessed little girl---gave him his readings with her hands thrust into the guts of a dying old halfling.
When the rest of the players found out what had happened early the next session... wow, that was one of my favorite DM moments ever. At this point, half of them were convinced that they should head back to the diviner with more questions. And when they were attacked by a press-gang, that is actually what they ended up doing. The peculiar morality of some of the rest of them revolted against slavery, but didn't have any problems with killing honest-to-goodness prisoners.
Corey and Brian, the players of Ricardo and Lash respectively, have commented on the evil with a little "e" vibe in my "Demons in the Mist" game. Which is fun, because they're probably the more overtly evil characters, if you were to try and put a label on it. Ricardo is charming and attractive... until you get to know him a bit. Corey's really nailed it on the head when he made his rake an angry and selfish individual that cares little for his conquests, and quite probably is the way he is as a coping mechanism for being psychotically damaged in some way. Lash has glimmerings of caring about people around him... from time to time... but mostly is content with pursuing, by hook or crook, his own dreams of wealth and leisure regardless of the cost to anyone else. This has been the source of a great deal of comedy, as the two of them "compliment" each other in a lot of ways, by which I mean that their combined weaknesses and tragic flaws ensure that they are pretty much in a state of constant trouble. And, currently, they have the tools to prevent (or cause) the End of the World™ in their hands, but they're not sure they care to do anything about it, because they don't see what's in it for them, and they have just enough hubris to think that they don't need to because it'll never impact them personally.
Friday, April 17, 2009
One of the prime purveyors of 3.5 material has been Paizo Publishing, the former publishers of Dragon and Dungeon magazines. Their bread and butter has been the Adventure Path modules; six fairly long, interlinked modules that are designed to take a character from 1st to about 15th or so level in a grand story arc. The adventures also come with a lot of other material; setting material, several new monsters, etc. and are a pretty good buy for the money, in my opinion. And I say this even as a guy who rarely (if ever) uses adventures "right out of the box." I've still found plenty of material raid-worthy. Not only that, the setting that's gradually been revealed is very interesting to me. It's got just the right about of references to old pulp and swashbuckling adventure stories, plus just enough new and exciting innovations; just enough tried and true D&Disms and just enough new directions and vistas.
Granted, I'm still going to raid it for inclusion into my own work (mostly) rather than attempt to run anything in the setting as written, but I've got to say that the Pathfinder setting has really won me over. In fact, I think I reviewed it here several months ago and said as much there.
So, in an example of fanboyism, I'm going to list the currently available and upcoming products from the Pathfinder Chronicles and Pathfinder Companion lines that I'm interesting in buying but have not yet done so. I do have a fair amount of the currently available products from both lines already, and I'm not listing those. These are all setting books of moderate length. Actually, the Companion books are fairly small.
Into the Darklands
Dark Markets - A Guide to Katapesh
The Great Beyond - A Guide to the Multiverse
Princes of Darkness - Book of the Damned Vol. 1
Cities of Golarion
Guide to the River Kingdoms
Taldor - Echoes of Glory
Qadira, Gateway to the East
Cheliax, Empire of Devils
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
In a Pbp, that's more challenging. In theory, you do the same thing, but if you have to call out, "OK, John, now it's your turn," then your combats drag interminably. So, to keep things moving, it's better to have everyone call out their actions at once and then sort them out. Of course, this can, in turn, lead to a confusing situation where it's difficult to keep track of when stuff is happening, have players put forth actions for the current turn, etc.
So, it's a tradeoff. You get very slow, but organized play, or you get very chaotic play that is at least moving forward. In face to face gaming, it's not really an issue, because you get the advantages of both with the disadvantages of neither.
Le sigh. If you couldn't tell, I'm in the midst of a combat right now, and I got a little lazy about keeping it organized. Now we're all confused, though.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
After I laughed, I thought about that seriously, though... like I said, the big dinosaurs probably were rarely (if ever) feathered as adults. Also, if they did have feathers, it'd more likely be downy fluff, not contour feathers like birds today have. And I disagree that it's necessarily a problem. One of the few scenes from the movie 10,000 B.C. that really worked well was when they were all fleeing and hiding from the terror birds. And anyway, a down-covered T. rex would look kinda wooly and freaky cool, in my opinion.
That said, yeah. Dromeosaurs were almost certainly all feathered (examples of many, many species with feathers have turned up over the last few years) and that annoying kid at the beginning of Jurassic Park himself said it: being chased by a giant turkey isn't very scary.
So... feathered dinosaurs have been coming out of China for a while now, due in part to the preservational bias and the extremely fine ash-based rock. However, to date they had always been from only one (albeit a very diverse and successful) branch of the therapod group, which is part of the saurischian root amongst dinosaurs. I've said for a while now that all we need to do to strongly suggest (or heck, even prove) that feathers and warm-bloodedness were a pre-dinosaurian (to say nothing of pre-avian) feature would be a feathered dinosaur on the ornithischian side of the fence. That would make it a dinosaur as far away as possible on the dino family tree from the therapods previously discovered with feathers, and one that hadn't shared a common ancestor with therapods since prior to the saurischian/ornithischian split. Which would mean, essentially, the first dinosaur ever, or there-abouts.
The reason this works out that way is because feathers are seen as a synapomorphy, that is, a complex evolutionary development that two species (or groups of species) have that is unlikely to have been convergently evolved more than once, and one that therefore must have been inherited from a common ancestor between the two.
I've long suspected that some kind of ornithischian dinosaur with feathers would turn up. My money was on a "hypsilophodontid", but Tianyulong is even better because it's a heterodontosaur; an even more primitive creature, and one, therefore, that is even more likely to pound away at opposition to the idea of feathered dinosaurs across the board. Suggestive facts that led up to this discovery (and made me believe it was eventually inevitable) were 1) the frill-tailed Psittacosaurus which, sadly, were not definitively proto-feathers, but were highly suggestive of them, 2) using parsimony to link dinosaurs to pterosaurs, a closely related sister group amongst the ornithodirans that also had an obvious warm-blooded nature and a hair or down-like integuement of some kind, 3) lots of evidence of varied nature to suggest that warm-bloodedness came about amongst at least some of the archosaurs quite a while before the dinosaurs actually came on the scene, 4) dinosaurs such as Leaellynasaura who lived close to the poles were too large to dig a burrow and hibernate, but too small to migrate or manage the winters in Dinosaur Cove, where the fossils were found. This suggests warm-bloodedness and some kind of adaptation to deal with the cold (i.e., feathers or down.)
Anyway, this isn't really surprising to me, or to some of the other more bold folks in the dino-biz (Greg Paul's been illustrating feathered ornithischians and proto-dinosaurs for over twenty years in anticipation of this discovery, for instance) but it'll turn the more conservative element amongst dino-guys on their heads. However, one point: if all dinosaurs had a feathered ancestry, why is it that most of the skin impressions we have found are for naked, scaly skin? I think that's an easy one to answer; large-bodied mammals have extremely short hair or no hair as well, unless they live in cold climates where they need it to stay warm. Look at elephants, rhinos, or even horses, zebras and lions. Male lions have a big hairy mane, but that is primarily a display feature and one for protection in fights with other male lions over breeding and territorial rights. Otherwise, they are short-haired animals. Hair (or down, or feathers) is actually maladaptive in warm climates for large-bodied animals. It helps retain heat and in warm climates, large animals are liable to overheat... if they're warm-blooded especially.
I suspect, for future illustrators, that feathers should be put only on smallish dinosaurs and proto-dinosaurs. Guys like the little Tianyulong which was about house-cat sized. Also; it's not unreasonable to assume that hatchlings and other younger dinosaurs may have sported a downy coat that they shed as they matured.
Anyway, here's the illustration of Tianyulong that's been floating around the internet.
Monday, April 13, 2009
However, it also occurred to me that to greater enhance its use as a tool for context, to say nothing of the fact that lately I've found pre-dinosaurian tetrapods more interesting than actual dinosaurs (probably due to my own personal familiarity with dinosaurs---thecodonts and therapsids are like the exciting mistress that I'm still discovering, I suppose) I recently went back and added the Permian, Carboniferous and even the Devonian ages to the chart as well.
I could have gone back and added the Silurian, Ordovician and even the Cambrian too, but the Devonian, the so-called "Age of Fishes", is a good starting point for a number of reasons. The earliest Devonian is when vertebrates actually became an important and significant faunal component overall. Vascular plants had started some tentative colonization of terrestrial environments in the earlier Silurian period, but it was really the Devonian where land plants came into their own, and the first forests started spreading across at least the wetter terrestrial regions. And, at the end of the Devonian, the first tetrapods evolved from some lobe-finned fish; guys like Acanthostega and Ichthyostega took their first shuddering steps out of the water and onto the mud.
That said, it's really after the first diapsids and synapsids appeared in the Carboniferous that things started getting interesting. The Permian seems like a transitional period; one that perhaps doesn't actually belong thematically in the Paleozoic after all. From the Permian on down, the history of vertebrate life on land is the history of the dynastic struggles of the synapsids vs. the diapsids. The synapsids took an early lead, but lost ground steadily after the Permian-Triassic extinction event (the worst in the history of the world) and were displaced completely by the diapsids before the Jurassic even arrived. The diapsids' major success was in the run-up to, and subsequent domination by the dinosaurs. The degree and longevity of their reign is somewhat startling, really.
Of course, as we all know, it didn't last either. The diapsid dominance came to a screeching halt at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary and the synapsids put their newer models, the true mammals, up in a bid for a hostile takeover that seems to be going strong still today. It's interesting to note that if you count the Cenozoic Era plus the Permian period as times when synapsids dominated the terrestrial megafauna together (113 million years), they still don't equal the amount of time that the diapsids dominated the terrestrial megafauna during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods (134 million years.) We've got a ways to go if we want to prove that we're even the equal of dinosaurs in that regard. Note: I didn't count the Triassic, because it was a contested period of just over 50 million years, but if I did, I'd probably have to give most if not all of it to the diapsids anyway. The apex predators of the early Triassic were archosauromorphs like the eurythrosuchids, and by the middle of the period, diapsids were knocking on the doors of, if not already dominating, almost every large-bodied animal ecological niche, while the increasingly mammal-like therapsids were getting smaller, and smaller, and more and more migrating into small-bodied, nocturnal animals rather than contenders for the sexy positions of apex predators, large-bodied herbivores, or even medium sized animals, for that matter.
What is the secret of the diapsid success during the Triassic, anyway? Nobody's really sure. Part of that hinges on the still mysterious, yet tantalizing question of the physiology of the earlier non-dinosaurian therapsids and thecodonts. Were they warm-blooded? If so, to what degree? In any case, this is exactly why I've found the Triassic to be one of my most fascinating periods of life on earth. It starts off with a world in recovery, after the greatest natural disaster (still!) in the history of our planet, and throughout the Triassic, environmental conditions were difficult. Even so, the rapid turnover of dynasties as one group of animals after another put in their bids for supremacy in guild after guild of large-bodied terrestrial and semi-aquatic ecological niches, only to be (relatively) quickly turned over and replaced by a new king on the hill is fascinating to reconstruct. Looking at this broader context, the story of the Triassic, and the story of the diapsids and synapsids as a "big picture" dynastic conflict, is one of the most interesting I can think of in the natural history of our planet.
Although I still like it, I was struck by a few nagging uncertainties with it and the series as a whole recently. First off: eleven books now, and apparently plans are for over twenty in total? Holy crap. I know it's a bit of a cash cow and Butcher probably wants to milk it for as long as he's able to, but it really struck me that it seems unlikely that the level of tension and high quality is really supportable that long. I'm already starting to feel like the formula is too... well, formulaic. Can we really stand twenty novels of formulaic "case files" and then a few novels of "meta-plot conclusion" before we're kinda tired of it already? It seems unlikely. I hope that Butcher has some great ideas still brewing, because I'd hate to find that this series that I've come to quite enjoy fades out with a whimper. Secondly (and related) the very slow unraveling of the meta-plot is starting to feel artificial. At the risk of some very minor spoilers (not much beyond what you'd find on the dust jacket) the premise of Turn Coat is that a traitor among the wizardly White Council is at work, and of course, it's up to Harry to see what he can do to uncover said traitor while clearing the name of a collegue. That initially sounded to me like a major development of the meta-plot, but Butcher managed to ratchet back the ramifications of the novel-specific plot to relatively minor ones.
So, all in all, my complaints (or perhaps more accurately, apprehensions) are not related to this novel per se which, while not my favorite of the series, is still pretty solid, but rather looking at the series architecture in general with increasing worry that it seems like something that is going to be difficult, if not impossible, to hold onto for the proposed life of the series.
Anyway, check it out. If you haven't read any of Butcher's Dresden Files books, I imagine that they have very broad appeal. To borrow a phrase that I don't much like, but which I think does actually apply here; they're not great literature, but they're fun. The characters are likeable and easy to read about, and the novels are written with the page-turner urgency of a mainstream thriller. The detective noir take on urban fantasy seems to be a common theme in a lot of very popular novel series lately, but Butcher's good at it. Perhaps in spite of himself.
Thursday, April 09, 2009
I'm certainly old enough to be a fairly grognardy type guy, and I did get my start with D&D sometime prior 1980 or so (not sure with which edition, although it must have been some variety of pre-BD&D). At the time, my friend who was trying to run an adventure for me didn't seem to get that I was clearly much more interested in his Kenner Star Wars toy collection. Ah, Clark. How I missed you when you moved away, and took your Death Star playset with you. His collection was actually the most complete I'd ever seen. He had it all. This was all prior to the release of The Empire Strikes Back.
A few years later I actually made a move into D&D on purpose; reading through the Moldvay and Mentzer sets with some friends who were into it. This was, of course, the heyday of D&D when it was available in mainstream retail outlets and almost every male kid my age at least tried it out or looked into it. Probably right around 1982-3. I didn't play it religiously, though. I migrated briefly into AD&D over the next few years, and also tried out some other TSR produced roleplaying games like Gamma World, Top Secret (one of my favorites still today), Star Frontiers, etc. But none of them really crystalized as a hobby of choice for me.
That didn't happen until later. In the 90s, I was still not really playing but hanging around the fringes of hobby, buying the occasional product and whatnot, and I got somewhat excited about the White Wolf movement. I always preferred Werewolf to Vampire, but still... the gist of both of them was the same anyway. I managed to play some Top Secret again with some friends of mine as an adult, and holy crap, this was a lot more fun with adults than it ever had been as a kid. As a kid, I enjoyed tinkering with homebrewing and drawing maps much more than I actually enjoyed playing, but now that was no longer the case. I stumbled across Third Edition D&D right as it was only a month or two from being released, and that's when I finally made it really my #1 hobby (well, #2. I still like reading more.)
Over time, I found that many of the D&Disms that I didn't like back in the day... well, I still didn't like them. I didn't like the tactical, miniatures combat element of d20. I preferred to focus on some "non-standard" options to the exclusion of the standard ones, and play a bit fast and loose with the rules rather than interpret them strictly. I migrated more to d20 Modern as a generic tool as opposed to D&D's more specific nature. When 4th edition came out just recently, I was politely disinterested from the get-go.
Today, I've found that I'm a bit more tolerant of D&D's foibles, at least as the 3.5 edition has them. Part of that is the numerous options I have of dealing with them; alternate core classes, alernate magic systems, and an entire book of "official" houserules to patch and modify the way the game plays.
But even so, I like the Grognardia blog. The author seems a nice guy, and although I'm not that interested in his style of gaming, I think he still manages to drum up some really interesting discussion points, even for a guy like me.
RIP, Dave! You'll be missed.
In other news, the new Jim Butcher Dresden Files novel is out. I had my local public library buy it and I had the first hold on it. I just got an email this morning that it's done cataloging and is ready to pick up. So... after diverting away from all the books I have to read for all those Black Company books, now I'm going to continue the diversion and read this. Poor Black Arrow. I do promise that I will finish you someday. Soon.
Wednesday, April 08, 2009
Well, I mentioned earlier that I was reading through the later Black Company books; in fact, I read all ten of the books in order (see list below.) That's a lot of reading. Despite that, I don’t feel like I read too much; in fact, in many ways the whole deal with the Black Company books is that they don't really fill out the setting, the characters or even the plot. Stuff moves quickly and is often poorly described. Although this is part of its charm to its fans, I still can't say that I'm totally sold on the voice. In fact, in the later books, I think it was as much a disservice as a service---the impact of what should have been highly emotional, dramatic moments was deliberately muted. To me, that's a case of the concern for voice going all out of proportion to what it should be. The voice worked well in the first three books, as presenting a world-weary, low-brow soldier's point of view. I think it worked more poorly as the characters, plotlines and situations evolved and matured.
Still; I do like the plotlines a lot. I do like the thematic elements. A lot. I mentioned that in the last post I made on the Black Company books, but the idea of these wild and crazy (yet extremely rare) sorcerers being either 1) corrupted by power, or 2) corrupted by comletely justified paranoia is just too cool for words. I've always been a fan of the idea that in the ancient past people came from other worlds (my own settings often feature such things; it's how I justify to my overly scientifically minded mind how fantasy settings can be a mixture of earthlike and unearthly flora and fauna.) I recommend the books whole-heartedly, with only the caveat that they're written in a very different voice than most fantasy fans (or most fiction fans in general, with some exceptions) are used to reading in. This voice is at times a strength and at others a significant weakness. Also, the hinted at yet untold stories implicit in the text are both tantalizingly interesting, and extremely frustrating at the same time. It's almost as if Cook went out of his way to hint at stories and then not tell them for no reason other than to tease us.
Anyway, here's the complete list of all the books, in the order I read them. As mentioned in an earlier post, The Silver Spike was put into the omnibus edition in an order that I wouldn't have thought to have used, but that's the order I ended up reading them in anyway.
1. The Black Company
2. Shadows Linger
3. The White Rose
4. Shadow Games
5. Dreams of Steel
6. The Silver Spike
7. Bleak Seasons
8. She Is The Darkness
9. Water Sleeps
10. Soldiers Live
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
When they came back into print in the 1960s, that was no longer the case. However, a new generation of writers cropped up who imitated the genre conventions (and this is where the genre tag was coined by Don Wollheim (of DAW books fame) and they had to contend with the fact that our understanding of planetary science had made the entire genre impossible, and therefore not within the realm of science fiction, even remotely.
There were two approaches to it that seem common at that time. Guys like Lin Carter with his Jandar of Callisto series and Mike Resnick with his Ganymede series, just ignored it, made some vague claim at the beginning of the novel that the protagonist realised that science said his story was impossible, but that it was true nonetheless! This was a bit of a wink and a nudge at the readers, though, and other series did things differently. Lin Carter's Green Star series (as well as many other series, such as F. Gardner Fox's Llarn series, Kenneth Bulmer's Dray Prescott series, and L. Sprague de Camp's Krishna series) set their stories outside of the solar system where nobody could argue with the idea of human aliens living on worlds that we knew to be inhospitable to human life.
Most recently, a handful of neo-Sword & Planet books have popped up. In particular I'm thinking of S. M. Stirling's series set on Venus and Mars that are alternate history; the Russian Venera probe operated about as long as it really did, but instead of being destroyed by the hostile environment, it was clubbed by a caveman.
You know what I'd like to see? A far-distant future that sees the planets of our solar system terraformed, to a certain extent, and then society falling backwards to a pre-space traveling technological age, stranding human colonists for generations until they become natives of their planets. Either that, or some other pseudo-scientific explanation that includes the possibilities of human-like life on the frozen worlds beyond the asteroid belt. I like fantasy as much as the next guy (probably a good deal more, actually) but I even more like to integrate as much plausibility, reality and SCIENCE as possible. I guess I'm an old school "Weird Tales" fan when you get right down to it. Back in the day before science fiction and fantasy parted ways in the minds of most audiences and became two completely different things.
Here's a few randomish thoughts. I like Spiderman. In fact, I like superheroes in general, and I always have. I never really grew out of liking them. In fact, now that I have small boys who are discovering them all over again, it's that much easier to like them. Of course, it's also easier to like them because the marketing guys at Marvel and other places have discovered that their audience does not consist entirely of children anymore. And even when it does, children increasingly demand more sophistication in their entertainment. More sophisticated plots, characterizations and dialogue.
Also: I never really read comic books as a kid. I liked superheroes from the cartoons. Spiderman was a very early favorite, but he used to have that cartoon show. You know, the one with the famous themesong. Have you watched that recently? I've seen an episode or two, with the kids, and frankly, it's painfully unwatchable. Friggin' terrible. When I was a little older, I used to watch Spiderman and his Amazing Friends, an all-new show that was better, yet watching it again now, is still painfully unwatchable as well.
Those two shows didn't really do anything interesting with the Spiderman story. The characters and plots were pretty much exactly the same as they used to be in the original comic book, or they were new plots but the existing main plotlines were implicitly the same. That changed in the 90s with the newer animated Spiderman show. This is still obviously focused on children and has laughably bad dialogue and action, but plotwise, it's kinda interesting, and it actually struck out in its own way, creating its own vision of the Spiderman mythos.
There are, today, three good avenues for such revisionist Spiderman, aimed at a broad audience (i.e., adults can enjoy it, not just kids). The first are the Sam Raimi movies with Tobey MacGuire and Kirsten Dunst. Chances are you've already seen these. Next, are the trade paperbacks of the Ultimate Spiderman; an all new comic book that "reboots" the entire franchise. Plus, it's got Peter Parker back in High School again (and keeps him there for the time being) which was always half the fun of the character. The third one is the new animated show Spectacular Spiderman; the first season of which just got released on DVD recently. My youngest son stumbled across the first DVD at the library and brought it home. I'd already been DVRing the episodes to watch with the kids, so I was certainly familiar with it, but frankly, this is surprisingly good. Good dialogue, good re-imagining of the Spiderman mythos, good characterization, and fun presentation.