Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Dark fantasy defined

While I don't think it's meant to be definitive or exclusive, a writer of novels called "dark fantasy" by most has taken a stab at defining what the subgenre means. It's not exactly how I would define it, but it's an interesting discussion nonetheless. Check it out!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Warhammer Undead

Although I've never really embraced the hobby, I've always been fascinated by the Games Workshop idea, and the collecting of, painting of, and playing with armies in the Warhammer and Warhammer 40k settings. The Warhammer setting is an interesting one. I've heard it described (and I'm paraphrasing) as a setting that you think is D&D, but it turns out is actually Call of Cthulhu in fantasy drag. I've been following it as a fringe member of the fanbase for many years--since at least 1994 when I started collecting a run of White Dwarfs. Although at the time, the setting was more tongue in cheek parody with cartoonish and clownishly colorful and often silly art and miniatures, the background flavor text from the darker days of the 1980s was still sufficiently evident that I could see the potential in it. That dark fantasy was naturally right up my alley, and the overt Cthulhuisms spread throughout the setting (especially the fantasy setting, but it's true for both) were kind of exciting in their new milieu.

From this inauspicious--yet curiously sufficient to hook me--beginning, Games Workshop has since almost completely restored my faith in the system, the setting and everything else. The art is now very dark and evocative, since hiring artists like Adrian Smith as one of their primary stylistic leaders, revamping almost their entire miniatures line--several times, actually--and improving the look of the sculpts not only from a technical aspect but also from an artistic and stylistic perspective as well, and focusing much more on the playing the setting(s) straight rather than using them as a dumping ground for pop culture references and lame puns. I've reviewed a bit of their more recent fiction here, and I've had Eisenhorn on my reading list all summer (although sadly, my progress through it has been fairly slow as I've been distracted by a lot of other things.)

I had, however, other than this fiction, dropped out of Games Workshop mainstreamiana for a variety of reasons, and considered that a past hobby that never really was, something that I was over and done with. But, for a variety of reasons, that may not be completely true, and I went out and bought 4-5 current White Dwarfs, looked over the online catalogs a lot, and even called my younger brother, who was much more invested in the hobby, and chatted with him about it for an hour or so the other night. What changed?

First off, my oldest son expressed a lot of interest in acquiring some miniatures. He wasn't necessarily interested in playing Warhammer or 40k (in fact, I think he's feeling motivated to try and make up his own game rules for the minis, believe it or not) but he loves the minis and wants to have a few. Secondly, the final volume of the Nagash trilogy by Mike Lee just came out. I've had the first two since--heck, since they were new--but I haven't read them yet, because I didn't want to start and then be left hanging. Since the final volume just came out, and I just ordered it, and it should be arriving at my house within a few days, I'll be all set to put it on the docket of my reading list, cutting to near the front of the line most likely. And thirdly, after picking up the White Dwarfs--nominally for my son, but realistically I'm the one who's much more likely to read them all the way through, and when we're "done" I'm going to keep them--I was extremely impressed with the fantastic look of the newest miniatures. And fourthly, I heard rumors that Blood Bowl, the best game Games Workshop ever produced, will be re-released. Probably not in the gloriously fun and somewhat wacky state that it was shorty after the Third Edition release, but in the more "favoring the Chess-player hyper competitive mode of the Living Rulebook as its evolved in more recent years. Anyway, that's just a rumor anyway.

As luck would have it, of the White Dwarfs I picked up, two of them focused on Undead. Back in the day, in my 1994 White Dwarfs, the Undead was a single army in Warhammer with no obvious counterpart on 40k. More recently, 40k got the Necrons and the old Undead army was split into the Vampire Counts and the Tomb Kings. Sadly, in my opinion, most of the "cool" stuff went to the Counts, and the Kings were left with nothing but a bunch of skeletons, skeletons with slightly more armor, skeletons on skeletal horses and skeletal chariots. In other words, they were a rather boring army.

Now, two hundred issues after my first foray into the Undead, the Tomb Kings and the Vampire Counts have both been revitalized with a slew of new miniatures, including big honkin' monsters, and a lot of cool and new variety for the Kings. Now with colossal animated statues in an ancient Egyptian ouvre, strange snakelike constructs and more, the Tomb Kings have gone from being about the most drab and boring of the armies out there to one of the most vibrant and exciting. I've attached a picture of one of their Necrosphinx, a huge new monster that's basically an animated statue of sorts, but which is scary beyond all reason as a monster concept.

The Vampire Counts got a new Vampire Lord on a zombie dragon that looks incredible too. In addition to that, the kit allows you to build a terrorgheist, which is probably my favorite new miniature at the moment. I'll let you GIS that one yourselves.

Why do I post this? I dunno. I've long had a love for the undead. They are about as iconic in supernatural horror literature as you can possibly get. And I like to see them treated with some respect for tradition, yet with some new takes that make them fresh and exciting, and mostly I like to see them treated as object of horror and fear, not of kitsch or romanticism, as our society is fairly keen to do in pop-art these days.

In addition, you may have noted that my "On Deck" shows two new Pathfinder setting supplements that deal with horror themes; the Ustalav book and the Undead Revisited book. We'll see how they go.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A few more trip pictures

Ah, what the heck. Here's a few more trip pictures. Again, ones without any people in them. Just scenery.

That's the view from the visitor's center at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, right off the interstate. We actually didn't explore that park much because we got there late in the afternoon. We poked around the visitor's center and the cool view area and then hit the road again.

That is over the cliff near Delicate Arch in Arches. I took pictures of the arch itself too, but I've got someone in all of those pictures. Plus, finding pictures of Delicate Arch online can't possibly be difficult.

Lake MacDonald in Glacier, from our hotel landing/balcony.

Back at Arches again; after you've taken the Park Avenue hike, this is the view out in the valley.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Trip report

Here's a link to the pictures of my trip on Facebook. I decided to quit trying to do the trip report posts and do this instead.

We had three cameras in action. My poor daughter's camera put out the worst pictures, but sometimes she got shots that the rest of us didn't, so I uploaded some of hers.

Here's a sample; one of the pictures without anyone in it, of the gallows at Bannack, MT that I mentioned in one of my trip report posts.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dark•Heritage: d20 Modern rules

Well, after deciding that I wasn't going to do it, I've gone and changed my mind again and decided to finish updating this site--which is the complete d20 Modern houserules document that makes it so a lot of flipping back and forth between books, rules and printouts is not necessary. In fact, assuming an at least basic familiarity with the concept of creating and running characters in a d20 game, you shouldn't need any additional rules on hand at all really; the document is a full service stop.

Or rather; it will be. I need to do three significant sections still; Skills and Feats, Advanced and Prestige classes, and Equipment. I despaired on that front earlier because those were going to be literally the biggest sections and the biggest pains to do. But I'm feeling motivated at the moment, so I'm going to see if I can continue to make progress.

In honor of this new motivation, I've changed out my banner and adjusted my colors just a bit, to make them "harmonious" with that link. I'll probably keep them as such for some time.

Also; just found this d20 Modern houserule suggestion for the Defense bonus. Apparently, it's supposed to work better than the Unearthed Arcana version. That's probably true; the UA version had a few odd implications if you tried to game the system as written.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Steampunk in Dark•Heritage

While I'm not exactly a fan of the steampunk movement, certain elements of it have percolated into DARK•HERITAGE and left an important mark on the setting as it's developed. Before I describe this at any length, let me first define what I mean by steampunk, because I think that's a bit of a nebulous term that means different things to different people.

Steampunk was coined in the 1980s and became more well-known during the 1990s as a somewhat flippant riff on the term cyberpunk. In many ways, it's just an aesthetic, not a genre per se. Even the earliest steampunk didn't necessarily have any genre conventions; it just had a lot of references to steam and clockwork powered technology; a kind of runaway Victorian era, if you will. As steampunk has matured and evolved into this decade, that's if anything, been an even stronger focus on the movement; it's more about a sense of style, a look, an aesthetic, than it is about anything else. There's not a "steampunk worldview" or conventions of a "steampunk story" that need to be met other than an application of the aesthetic. Heck, Disney did a line of steampunk pins that illustrated this concept more than anything else; putting a mechanical monocle on Pete was nothing if not pure aesthetic overlay.

Me, however, see, I like to use steampunk as a label that's closer to its roots in cyberpunk. It's not just steam-; I also need to have a hefty dose of -punk. So to me, urbanization, dystopian societies with all kinds of social ills--a kind of exaggerated Dickensian London approach--are as important as anything else to be steampunk, not just wearing tophats and goggles. I also shy away from a pure Victoriana approach, mostly because I like fantasy that takes place in the so-called "secondary world"--an author-created world, not the real world that's been "fantasied-up." There's no Victoriana, because there's no Queen Victoria because there's no Great Britain at all.

That said, I backed off from some of my earlier approaches, where the steampunk aesthetic was fairly prominant to one in which it's fairly low-key. Rather than run-away crazy steampunk inventions, I only have a handful of clockwork and steam-powered devices, and rather than letting my stories and games and settings really hinge on them, they just provide some background and color here and there.

One way in which I've done this is to suppose that urban areas--some of them, at least--are known for having clockwork "bugs" that crawl around on the walls and streets and rooftops, taking messages from one place to another before needing to be wound up again. They don't speak; you can just fold up a parchment message, put it in a small container in the bugs chassis, and then let it go. Because these bugs are large enough to resist tampering by birds, cats, or other wildlife, yet which crawl around in areas where other people cannot easily intercept them, it is seen as a fairly secure way to send message across town without having to go in person.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reading again

Well, I ended up finishing The Tomb of Hercules after all. Curiously, the eponymous tomb really isn't very important to the plot, nor does the search for, preoccupation with, or even the thought or mention of it make much of an appearance in the book.

Not great, by any means. Not bad. I think Hunt for Atlantis was better, even though McDermott clearly was trying to do more to develop his characters. Or, at least the two main characters, Eddie and Nina. I feel like he felt he needed to write another book but wasn't quite sure what to write about, so Tomb feels a little like a cobbled together not quite story.

My earlier almost ditching of the book wasn't really because it was bad--although clearly it also wasn't exactly good either--but was more related to the pressure I felt to read some of the other stuff in my queue. But, I persevered, finished and will (maybe) someday read the next book in the series, which if the title is any guide, has to do with the search for Excalibur (the title is The Secret of Excalibur. Not really a mystery there.)

Curiously, Excalibur and Arthurian legendry in general informs the other book I recently read--which I blasted through easily just today, but which, granted, is a bit shorter at about 350 pages. That book is Dark Jenny, which is an interesting and unusual hybrid; noir/hardboiled detective and a fantasy milieu that is very obviously borrowed from Arthuriana, but made a bit more noirish and tawdry, and with the names changed up just for good measure.

I very much enjoyed it. Alex Bledsoe (the author) clearly has a handle on the hardboiled voice. Curiously, for the fun of it, I poked around a bit and read some reviews online. For fantasy fans who read it, that was usually what they struggled with the most. "Anachronisms" (a ridiculous accusation in a fantasy setting, actually, but that's neither here nor there) "modern" names (that actually date from Medieval Saxon and Celtic extraction mostly, but readers often forget that) and a wry, cynical Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe voice from the main character (the book is written in first person) and a dark, unflinching look at the Arthurian milieu that would make even Bernard Cornwell cringe. The complaints from the online reviews reveal, in my opinion, an unfamiliarity with the conventions of noir fiction and a complete missing of the point, which just illustrates the point that I've made before that fantasy fans tend to be too insular and provincial in their tastes and need to "get out more" read some other genres a bit, and broaden their horizons.

I think at the end, Bledsoe wasn't quite sure how to end the novel, and it feels occasionally like it just stops on a slightly unsatisfying note. But be that as it may, the novel was very fun to read, and I blasted through it at a furious clip, surprising even myself to knock it out before the kids went to bed... on a workday no less. Highly recommended.

It's technically the third in a series, but each book is (apparently) standalone. I never once felt like I was missing anything by not having read the first two yet. I do, however, have the first two already checked out from the library, and they'll soon hit my On Deck list too.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fantasy and Science Fiction in the marketplace

I just stumbled across this article, which was the cover story for the Library Journal recently, purporting to examine the trends in the science fiction marketplace--and by science fiction, I mean it as it's usually meant in bookstores and libraries; i.e science fiction and fantasy lumped together. I certainly recommend reading the entire thing; it's not that long (I printed it and took it to the john; it was about six pages printed, once I cut off the extaneous stuff at the end.) Curiously, or perhaps not, I can see many of these trends as part of a subcultural zeitgeist, if you will. They seem familiar and unsurprising to me, because in many ways, I'm personally undergoing some of those same trends.
  • Epic fantasy is still really big, but it's a post-Tolkien age epic fantasy; grittier, darker, more "realistic", more pessimistic, and often pervaded with anti-heroes. The success of writers like George R. R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson and others should have made this one unsurprising; and it's probably been true for years anyway.

  • Fantasy markets are not exactly moving away from the traditional eurocentric model, but other models are gaining ground, including a pseudo Arabian Nights vibe. I've blogged before about my love of this particular vibe; but again, it's not new, it's a resurgance of a very old trend. Heck; the very first modern fantasy; the sword & sorcery of guys like Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, etc. were heavily influenced by the Arabian Night. Some of the novels highlighted in the article are, however, even more overtly "arabocentric."

  • "Male urban fantasy" is selling like hotcakes and growing like kudzu. As a big fan of Jim Butcher, I don't find this surprising, but again, apparently the author kinda does. Considering that urban fantasy seems to have started as "romance novels for goth girls" and evolved slowly from there, maybe this is a bigger deal than it seems to me to publishers and the like. Butcher's work, and those like him, are very solidly divorced from the romance angle and targeting an entirely new market than stuff like, oh, say, the Twilight Saga or Anita Blake have done.

  • Zombie kitsch, such as Pride & Prejudice & Zombies turns out to have possibly been kinda faddish, but other zombie related fiction continues to be a reasonably big element of the market, and is expected to grow, especially with the World War Z movie with Brad Pitt coming out next year.

  • Steampunk continues to be important, but also continues to be more of an aesthetic overlay rather than a true "subgenre" of it's own. Lots of authors are dipping their toes into the water, including superstar Brandon Sanderson, but again--by applying it as an overlay to the subgenre that they already write in, mostly.

  • Science Fiction itself struggles; in need of a renaissance. The genre is increasingly turning grim and political-minded, which means that it's not attracting the same kinds of audiences that thrilled to Star Wars when they were kids and still want exciting space-based adventure. Hard SF, on the other hand, continues to trundle onward, and possibly even grow a bit. A Tor editor noted that fantasy outsells SF 2-1, but fantasy submissions outpace SF 4 or 5-1. Is that good news or bad news? Maybe good if you're a SF author looking to break into the market; less competition and easier to differentiate yourself; but bad news if you really want to tap into the big markets--those guys prefer reading fantasy. Lots of attempts to do something new with SF seem to be on the horizon, but whether any of them will be more than minor hits is perhaps somewhat dubious.

Reading list

I'm about to drop three books off my reading list. Two of them, because I finished them. One of them because I don't think I want to.

Curiously, the two I finished were both non-fiction. Iron Kingdom, a nearly 700 page massive history of Prussia, was a fascinating read. It really explodes the inanely simplistic, yet surprisingly common notion that the only legacy of Prussia was a culture of militarism and servility. In fact, although the Nazis appealed to that myth and tried to cast themselves as the heirs of that legacy, that was just propaganda--they bore very little if any real resemblance to traditional Prussian culture (in fact, the perpetrators of the "Operation Valkyrie" plot to kill Hitler more honestly deserve that label--and Claus von Stauffenberg was descended from an old Prussian Field Marshal on his mother's side.)

And let's not forget that not everything about the Nazis was terrible. Indeed, if it was, there would be no explanation for the phenomenal success the Nazis had in the court of public opinion in Germany other than to assume that the Germans were a fundamentally evil people. The Nazis were masters of propaganda; they managed to coopt a lot of virtues and drive those home to the German people over and over again, while meanwhile glossing over many of their true intentions.

No, the legacy of Prussia is, unfortunately, a sad thing. If only William II hadn't been a completely incompetent king, the worst in Prussia's 400 year history, we might have had a very different memory of Prussia today than we do now.

The second non-fiction book I read was Left Turn by Tim Groseclose. While this didn't surprise me in any way--I had intuitively already understood exactly what he was talking about and believed it anyway--it's nice to see a scholarly treatment on the subject of media bias, and one that quantifies it (and its effects on elections!) in a way that has not been seriously challenged. True, it's been beaten back and forth by liberal bloggers, book reviewers, and others, but the seminal paper Groseclose wrote, the center of his research, which was published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics remains unchallenged on its methods, models and results after more than five years, despite the fact that its professional audience is one that has every reason to refute it if they could. Why is this? Because they can't. The methods, model and conclusions are irrefutable, and most political science professors, as much as they might wish the conclusions were not true, can find no fault with them. Only those who don't understand the methods, model and conclusions, but which clearly don't like them, lead the charge in uninformed criticism.

This, along with the documentary Media Malpractice, which I watched a few months ago, are among the most important things I've read/watched this year. True, like I said, I already intuitively believed what they were quantifying. But it's one thing to perceive something and its another to see it proven. Every American should read this book (and then also watch that documentary) and then regardless of which side of the political aisle you find yourself, you should be outraged at the serious disservice that the American media has done to the American public. In most professions, that level of disservice; whether consciously done in pursuit of an agenda, or unconsciously done due to incompetence, would mean you were out of work. In the legal profession, an attorney can be disbarred. In the medical profession, doctors can lose their licenses and be sued for malpractice. Only journalists are patted on the back and congratulated by their collegues and editors for whatever it is that they think that they're doing.

And finally, I've been reading Andy McDermott's Tomb of Hercules. While I earlier spoke fondly of the first book in this series, The Hunt for Atlantis, I'm struggling a bit more with the second. Part of it may be the timing; I feel like I need to rush through it, and I've got a lot of stuff that's time sensitive on my docket; either because I got it through Interlibrary Loan, so I have to read it before it's due, or I got it as New Books from the library, where I'm limited in my ability to renew stuff that I haven't finished. I've read a little over half of the book, but I set it aside while reading both of the non-fiction books that I just described. And just last night, I kinda paged ahead and looked at the end of the book. The plot is a bit too much of a retread of the first; the entire book feels like deja vu in too many ways, and it's just not grabbing me.

That said, I feel reluctant to give up on it so late into it; if I could just get about three solid, uninterrupted hours and the motivation to do so, I could probably finish the last 200 pages or so that I have to read. But honestly, my problem is as much motivation as anything else.

I haven't completely made up my mind yet, but I'll probably abandon Tomb of Hercules and turn to some of the other stuff on my docket. I just added an "On Deck" set of books, but I realized that one of the books I have, Dark Jenny, is the third in a series. Granted, they're all stand-alones, but still, it bothers me to read the third book in a series first. So last night, on a trip to the library to pick up the second part of Timothy Zahn's post-Return of the Jedi novel for my 9-year old son, I also grabbed books one and two of the Eddie LaCrosse series, and I brought the first one in to work with me today (along with Tomb of Hercules) so that I can decide which fo the two I really want to read when I get a chance to take a break later today.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Big cartridges

It occured to me that if I'm going to have this wild and wooly North American Pleistocene megafauna, that folks who wander the wilderness may need to have very high caliber rifles to stop charging bison bulls, or elephants or other big, mean animals that can take half a dozen "lesser" bullets and keep on moving. Elephant guns, as they're called. I didn't really give much thought to what it would be like to fire an elephant gun, though.

Here's a few youtube clips of some guys in a range firing the .577 Tyrannosaur cartridge. 220 lbs of recoil force. Holy smokes.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Panthera atrox

I've said for a long time that I have a North American Pleistocene megafauna as my baseline megafauna in DARK•HERITAGE. What does that mean exactly? Today, Africa is the only continent with a really robust and diverse megafauna. We think today that Africa has a lot of really exotic and cool big land animals. Of course, a few thousand years ago, before the Quaternary Extinction event (or perhaps protracted Holocene extinction event; I'm not necessarily convinced that 11,000-10,000 years ago was such a hard stop for all of these animals) all of the continents (except Antarctica) had equally large, sometimes exotic and cool large land animals all over them. Perhaps interacting with prehistorical peoples like the so-called Clovis peoples in North America.

One of the most notable characters to cross the stage of North America during the Pleistocene was the so-called American lion. For many, many years (although curiously, not when it was first described) the American lion was considered to be an actual true lion, Panthera leo atrox. A somewhat recently published paper called this into question.

See, all the extant pantherines (members of the genus Panthera and their closest relatives within the Pantherinae subfamily are very closely related and fairly recently separated from each other. It's very difficult to establish the relationship between just the four that are living today; fitting in extinct populations is even more difficult. It's generally believed that the tiger was the first to split off from the lineage that lead to the rest of them, then the jaguar, and the lion and leopard split from each other last. The morphological study that I'm referring to, by Per Christiansen and John Harris, suggest that the American lion is actually not a lion at all, and is most closely related to the jaguar--although not to suggest that it is a jaguar; just that it's more closely related to that animal than to other pantherines (as the modern lion is to the leopard, for instance.) This revives the notion that Panthera atrox is not a subspecies of Panthera leo but is in fact it's own animal, a separate type of cat unknown today, although similar morphologically to an extremely large lion or jaguar. Which of course are already similar to each other, just as all pantherine cats are very similar. From bones alone, it is very difficult to tell different types of pantherines from each other.

Of course, another study of mitochondrial DNA from both living and extinct populations of "lions" came to a different conclusion. Ross Barnett et al consider modern lions (of all populations), European cave lions, Berengian lions, and American lions to all be subspecies of Panthera leo. In their analysis, modern lions split from the other lineages at some time after becoming true lions, and did not mix since. This is a bit surprising, because their ranges would have bordered one another, if not in fact overlapped, but there it is. The European cave lion; the more recent version that is (Panthera leo spelaea as opposed to Panthera leo fossilis) shows remarkably little genetic diversity across it's entire range; from Portugal to the Yukon territory in Canada. In fact, it's believed that it probably underwent a genetic bottleneck, and a smaller subset of the population had to then re-establish the entire population. Of course, they actually leave off the question as to whether the American lion is a "lion" or something else; but curiously, if it is not, then neither is the European cave lion. According to their analysis, all three could be subspecies of Panthera leo or atrox could be a subspecies of a separate species Panthera spelaea or atrox could be it's own species, just most closely related to spelaea. Interesting indeed.

Panthera leo atrox, as they call it, on the other hand, shows signs of being genetically isolated from any other lion population for quite some time, despite bordering ranges with spelaea. They also come out as the closest to spelaea, indicating that atrox and spelaea came from the same population, which had no admixture with what eventually became modern lions, but separated and remained separated genetically for over 300,000 years. This is most surprising in that it completely does away with the idea that Panthera leo vereshchagini which is also called the Beringian cave lion, is a separate subspecies. But it also directly contradicts the idea that the American lion is not a true lion, and is in fact more closely related to the jaguar than to the modern lion, which in turn is more closely related to the leopard.

I've included an image that someone did of a Smilodon populator, the gigantic South American sabertooth who's just killed a peccary of some kind and is being confronted by an atrox; whether as a subspecies of lion or as its own pantherine species altogether, it would probably have looked very similar.  The two animals are considered to be the largest cats that ever lived with P. atrox a bit longer and S. populator heavier and more robust.

For my purposes, I'm going with the atrox as a separate species angle, just because, hey, I like to think the North America is special and we had our own endemic critters, not just immigrants from Beringia. American lions in DARK•HERITAGE have very faint rosettes, not unlike that of young lions, over a tawny coat. They are not heavily maned, but do have a thickening of the hair around the neck. And like jaguars (and leopards) they are often subject to melanism; the condition that causes leopards and jaguars to instead become "black panthers." Atrox does not form prides, but is more social than many other large cats, which are solitary. Atroxes often congregate in smaller family groups; a parent and cubs, along with subadults, and occasionally one of the parents siblings often hunt together. These groupings are more fluid than prides, and occasionally mature individuals will go their own way when they tire of the relationship, or wish to seek out their own mates or other group. This is based on the same imperative that drove African lions to form prides; on open grasslands, larger groups are more successful against the large packs of dire wolves, packs of saber-tooths, or bullying short-faced bears, to say nothing of the difficulty in hunting such large animals as the various species of bison.  But it's more accurately called a proto-pride rather than a true pride structure.

Atroxes in more forested regions tend to be more solitary, and have a social life not unlike that of the modern tiger.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

New Ultimate Spiderman

That's a link to an interview with Brian Michael Bendis. So, the secret's out. The new Ultimate Spider-man has been revealed. And... he's a kid nobody's ever heard of named Miles Morales.

I've gotta say, my interest has really plummeted. Who the heck is Miles Morales, and why should I care about him? See, that's why I liked Miguel O'Hara, and why apparently a lot of folks at Marvel did too. At least there was some tie to the legacy that is Spider-man, instead of just being this all new thing that you have to sell. Which, basically, retreads exactly the same things that Miguel O'Hara as the character would have. Possibly Bendis just has too much ego to do Miguel O'Hara; "No, I'm going to do basically the exact same things as Miguel, but it's going to be my character; an all new guy with an all new name. And because I'm such a rockstar, I'm not worried at all about people signing on."

Bendis is also either ridiculously stupid or ridiculously disingenious in the interview linked above. If you don't want people to think that this whole thing is just a PC Affirmative Action PR stunt, then don't make Miles Morales' ethnic background be the freakin' only thing that you're talking about! Isn't that pretty darn obvious? And Portland is a social Utopia? Please. I've been to Portland. It's a nice enough place, but that's just absurd.

Anyhoo, my interest in Ultimate Spiderman and the relaunch has pretty much completely plummeted through the floor. I'll give it a try... probably... a year or so from now when I can get the collected trade paperback from the library for free. But not before.

Marvel crossovers

Although I had lost interest in comic books (kinda) I got some lingering Interlibrary Loan books, and one of them at least prompted me to request some others. The book in particular I'm thinking of is Ultimate Power, a mini-series collected in trade paperback that takes place, mostly, in the Ultimate continuity. Written in equal parts by Brian Michael Bendis, one of the principal architects of the Ultimate Continuity (also known as Earth-1610), J. Michael Straczynski, most famous as creator of Babylon 5 but also writer of the "Supremeverse" (Earth-31916) which has the second take on the Squadron Supreme, and Jeph Loeb, famous for his work with Hulk, yet infamous as the author of The Ultimates 3 and Ultimatum, which "blew up" the Ultimate Universe in lots of ways.

One of the reasons Ultimate Power is really fascinating is that it almost links to the "regular" Marvel Universe, also known as Earth-616. It doesn't quite... but almost. Reed Richards sends some probes into the Negative Zone and from there to other dimensions. Next thing we know, Straczynski's version of the Squadron Supreme pops up to fight the Fantastic Four, and The Ultimates and the X-Men get involved as well.

A little background; the Squadron Supreme originally debuted in an old Avengers comic as an alternate universe's premier superhero team. They are quite obviously an ersatz Justice League, with transparent analogs of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, etc. The universe they come from is Earth-712. When the Squadron Supreme was rebooted, it was the darker, MAX comics line, and the characters were redesigned and rebooted in a way not too unlike the correspondances between the Ultimate Universe and the regular Marvel Universe. So, since the Avengers have a fight with the original Squadron Supreme back in the day, it makes sense that the much darker Ultimates would have a fight with the much darker rebooted Squadron Supreme here, in a correspondance/retelling of that original story.
Where it gets even more interesting, however, is that the Scarlet Witch uses her reality altering powers to pull the original Squadron Supreme in to join the fight. These guys, not expectedly, mistake the Ultimates for the Avengers, which they had met previously, and we have... almost... a connection between the Ultimate Universe and the regular Marvel Universe.

Anyway, the Squadron Supreme stuff is what I'd like to read still, and which I've now requested from Interlibrary Loan. Again; one of the interesting things about it is that it's a dark take on the Justice League, really. Marvel created at least three different ersatz Justice Leagues that I know of--including the Squadron Supreme, the Imperial Guard, and one in the Marvel Zombies universe. There's probably more that I'm not aware of; and frankly, like I said, the Squadron Supreme comes in two completely different versions. Anyway, I'll probably talk a bit about the Squadron Supreme stuff when it arrives, because hey--I'm kinda interested in it right now.

Ultimate Power was pretty good. Bendis and Straczynski's stuff was good. The end of it, which was written by Loeb, seemed a bit confused; I'm not sure that I followed exactly what was happening all the time, or thought it was clearly written, and some of the characters seemed to suddenly pop up in the middle of nowhere with relationships that I didn't get (Kitty Pryde kinda flirting with Shape, for example.) Gary Frank, the artist, is also quite good--in fact, his style reminds me strongly of David Finch's artwork. Since Frank is the normal artist for the Squadron Supreme and Finch is the normal artist for the Ultimates, either of the two of them was a good choice that felt "at home" for either of them.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Dark•Heritage: Haşhaş

Haşhaş (the ş is a Qazmiri letter that is pronounced like a really thick, whistling S or sh sound), also rendered in Terrasan as hash-hash or hashash, is a plant native to the nation of al-Qazmir, but which grows well in the Golden Peninsula. More frequently, however, when a Terrasan uses the word hashash, he's referring to the drug that is made from the plant, which can be boiled as a bitter tea to induce mild hallucinations and euphoria, or other dissociative behavior, along with signs characteristic of drunkeness, such as slurred speech, and clumsy uncoordinated use of limbs. When dried and smoked in a pipe or hooka in suffucient dosages, the effects are much stronger.

Here, the drug causes, at a minimum, a severe dissociative "out of body" experience, hallucinations, suicidal or violent tendences and paranoia. Frequent users can develop severe mental illnesses, including persistant schizophrenic tendencies, violent or suicidal lingering behavior, severe dissociation with reality, and paranoia.

While most physicians and others understand this to be an effect of the chemistry of the dried and treated plant, there remain people, occultists and other fringe members of society, who believe that the drug is a conduit to an altered state where humanity can perceive reality as it truly is; seeing the spiritual as well as the physical at the same time. The paranoia and violent or suicidal tendencies, they explain, are caused by fear of spiritual entities and daemons which surround us at all times out of sight. Because hashash users are aware of these threats at all times, they say, the paranoid behavior is entirely understandable.

Most hashash is grown in al-Qazmir; either on the island itself, or on plantations and farms in the so-called "Golden Peninsula" immediately to the west of the island. The Golden Peninsula has been largely "Qazmirized" but still retains relicts here and there of the civilization that lived there before it, which was distantly related linguistically and culturally to the more westerly Terrasans. The Qazmiri government themselves, however, forbid the use of hashash. They are more tolerant of the growing of it, as long as the crop is shipped overseas. Hashash plants are also grown as ornamental plants in some places in al-Qazmir, although in such cases the harvesting of them is negligible to non-existant.

The Terrasans have also forbidden the trade of hashash, and attempted to stop or at least limit the degree to which it spreads through the empire, although state-sponsored trading of it to non-Terrasans is not unknown. As with the Qazmiri, the dangers of the drug are the reasons for the its restriction, but selling it to foreigners, or brokering trade from al-Qazmir to other nations (such as city-states from the Baal Hamazi lands, or Kurushat, or barbarians who don't form nation-level polities) is a perfectly acceptable way to bring revenue to the state and a weakness to potential enemies.

Because of this restriction of the legal use and trade in the drug amongst local potential users, hashash is most likely to be found in black markets, smuggled in from vessels that hail from Porto Liure or Sarabasca, or even sponsored by the sinister Union of the Snake. The trade in hashash has become inseparably connected to elements of crime, especially organized crime (although small-time smugglers are hardly unheard of still) in the major urban centers of Terrasa, al-Qazmir, and elsewhere.

Curiously, possessing, or even using hashash is not illegal or restricted in Terrasa, only the sale and transport of it, which is heavily regulated to keep the drug away from the citizens of the nation who is making the regulations. Because of that, some people, especially wealthy users, occasionally openly flaunt their use of it, at least in tea-form. Smoking hashash is still done privately, both because of the danger to the user (and others nearby) and because it is socially very frowned upon as openly flaunting the norms of society.