Sunday, January 24, 2021

#StayAtHome: William Hope Hodgson's "The House on the Borderland"


Imagine Lovecraft, but without the racism. That's what William Hope Hodgson puts on offer with his novel, "The House on the Borderland".  Hodgson's book was published in 1908, and his work was in fact an influence on Lovecraft. And that influence is easy to see: a big chunk of the novel is exactly the kind of investigation into the weird that Lovecraft wrote. Another chunk of the novel is visionary travelogue, a cosmic journey into the far, far future.

In this novel, two men go on a fishing trip in the Irish countryside. They decide to follow a river trail for a bit. The river goes underground, and then emerges into a chasm. Near the chasm they find the ruins of an ancient estate. There, they discover a manuscript, and set to reading it. 

The first part of the manuscript relates the narrator's discovery that his home is under siege by Swine-Things. These seem to have emerged from the chasm, although as he sets about the defense of his house, he discovers a mysterious well plug in his cellar that seems to connect to the chasm. The Swine-Things have mesmeric abilities, and much later in the novel, we discover that they have the ability to deal wounds that glow green in the dark, and eventually feed some nasty form of fungal life.

It's worth noting that the Swine-Things (or creatures inspired by them) have made an appearance in other SF ranging from Doctor Who ("The Daleks Take Manhattan") to the Revelation Space setting of Alastair Reynolds, and Hodgson in recent years became an inspiration for old-school gamers as well, such as here and here and here. I know my friends Jim and Jason have read a fair amount of Hodgson, but I suspect many of his other fans have not. There is a lot more to the world than the weird tale as constructed by Lovecraft, and Hodgson offers new directions that gamers can pursue in their storytelling, such as the game, Casting the Runes.

In the second part of the novel, the narrator travels to the far future. The sun shifts to red, and then to black, and then a new, green star enters the picture. This part felt much like an early SF novel might, in which travel in space and time seems to use a conveyance (the house?), or even astral projection. The time travel sequence was much less interesting and suspenseful (and perhaps a bit tedious), but in reading it I wondered if Hodgson had read the astronomy of his time. I suspect so.

There are other books I am reading at the moment, but I'd like to continue reading this volume, and eventually take on The Night Land.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

#StayAtHome: Yoon Ha Lee's "Hexarchate Stories"

True Confession: While gay military erotica aren't exactly my thing, gay space operatic erotica certainly do hit the mark. Yoon Ha Lee's Hexarchate Stories delivers one of these in the short story "Gloves". More of this, please.

But the entire collection is really, really good. I believe this is Yoon Ha's second short story collection. His first one, Conservation of Shadows, is also quite good. Hexarchate Stories has one story which overlaps that first collection, "The Battle of Candle Arc". That story draws upon real history in the form of the Korean Admiral Yi Sun-Shin's incredible victory over a vast Japanese armada in the Battle of Myeongnyang, during the Imjin War. Moral of the story for GMs everywhere: make your space battles  happen on interesting space terrain. Admiral Yi  Sun-Shih used a whirlpool to his advantage to defeat a numerically superior force. Jedao does the same in this story by manipulating both the high calendar, which makes certain weapons more effective than others, and how the high calendar is spatialized in local space. I like this short story and have without a doubt read it more often than any short story by anyone. 

There are a lot of great stories in this collection, and this was my second time reading it, this time for the North Country Gaylaxians' Book Club. While there aren't a lot of authors that I reread (other than Michael Moorcock), Yoon Ha's work really does merit that as there are all sorts of subtleties to the setting and the characters' interactions with each other that come out this way. 

All of the stories in this collection take place in the Hexarchate universe featured in the Machineries of Empire series (which begins with the novel Ninefox Gambit). We get nice insights into the early years of both Jedao and Cheris, and it is nice to meet their families. There are two caper stories within the collection, the pre-Heptarchate "The Chameleon's Gloves" and "Extracurricular Activities", although the long novella with Cheris and Jedao II (Jedao-the-xenomorph) is also a caper story. Readers who have completed the Machineries of Empire series really owe it to themselves to read this collection, and especially the novella at the end, which in a number of ways integrates and completes the trilogy.

Monday, December 28, 2020

#StayAtHome: "Star Trek Vanguard: Reap the Whirlwind"


David Mack's "Reap the Whirlwind " is the third book in the Star Trek: Vanguard series, a set of Original Series novels set in the Taurus Reach, an area outside the Federation and bordered by the Klingon Empire, the Tholian Assembly, and the Federation. The Organian Peace Treaty does not exist yet, so the setting features intense espionage, sabotage, diplomacy, and intrigue among these three powers. 

The intrigue isn't just about territory: there is a series of ancient alien archaeological finds on many worlds in the Taurus reach, finds that promise great power for the faction that can unlock their secrets. But one of the three factions would rather keep these secrets buried...

In Star Trek Adventures terms, the Taurus Reach is a campaign setting ripe for exploration and intrigue. There is Starbase 47 (the station name for this Watchtower-class starbase is Vanguard), the Federation's primary footprint in the sector, and the heart of Federation operations covert and overt in the area. There are four important starships in this novel: USS Endeavor, the Constitution-class starship assigned to the sector after the destruction of the USS Bombay; the USS Sagittarius, an Archer-class starship (the small ship on the book cover which is trying to dodge a Klingon D7), the operations "runabout" (as it were) assigned to the starbase; USS Lovell, a refurbished Daedalus-class explorer assigned to a Starfleet Corps of Engineers crew; and the Rocinante, a free trader whose Captain, Cervantes Quinn, is beholden to both the Orion syndicate and to Lt. Commander T'Prynn, the Starfleet Intelligence liaison to Starbase 47. 

Yes, Rocinante does come up as a rogue ship name in SF from time to time, doesn't it?

I am not sure how accessible the book would be to someone just starting the series with this book, but there is a 30+ page glossary at the back. I plan to continue reading the series, even though I am not a huge fan of the ancient alien threat at the center of the series, and I find some of the characterization a bit tiresome; to wit, please either stop referring to female crew as the "brunette", or do the same occasionally with males; consider less frequent introduction of new female characters as annoying antagonists for male characters; consider not blowing up one of the two lesbian characters in the book, especially just after the characters' big break up scene.

So there are things in the series that annoy me, for sure. But in sourcebook terms, it IS a very interesting effort to create a setting for new Star Trek adventures (insert a capital "A" if you like; a Taurus Reach boxed set would be A GREAT IDEA for the RPG). You would really want this particular book in the series for its glossary, if you were going to use the setting in advance of a boxed set, and you'd want the first book in the series, Harbinger, for its nifty fold out map of both Vanguard and the exteriors of the Sagittarius. I know that this Archer-class starship has become a favorite for some Star Trek Adventures fans, as it is warp capable, able to land planetside, and small enough to be crewed by a handful of PCs. 

I have even thought about using the Taurus Reach for convention-based scenarios; it's probably just a matter of time until I figure out a story I want to tell. In the meantime, I am starting in on book four of the series, Dayton Ward's Open Secrets.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

#StayAtHome: Jenny Odell's "How To Do Nothing"


If quitting Facebook forever really isn't an option (and it isn't for most of us), what should you do to avoid doing work for Facebook, Twitter, etc.? By work here, I mean letting the attention economy (pushing the "Like" button, hitting the refresh addictively, and retweeting or resharing the latest outrage) command your attention. Jenny Odell's "How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy" (2019) was written to explore that question. She suggests that the answer is to retrain our attention to notice people and details in our local environment and broader region.

She makes her case through storytelling and theory, ranging from ancient Greek philosophy to the art scene (she is a digital artist by profession), social theory, birding (her hobby), and nature walks. An important insight in the book is that the attention economy produces and relies upon a kind of siloed attention: while people are networked, each person's online experience is profoundly channeled and controlled by algorithms in a way that makes shared experiences nearly impossible. Instead, we have to focus our attention on local people and nature if we want to engage in authentic dialogue, community, and exchange.

Odell is incredibly skilled at weaving together different kinds of knowledge and experience, and she has a gift for explaining art, social theory, and animal behavior in ways that are incredibly accessible to the general reader. This was the December book for the Empire Reading Group, and a great book with which to round out the year.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

#StayAtHome: John M. Ford's "The Final Reflection"


This was my first rereading of John M. Ford's The Final Reflection (1984) since its original publication some thirty six years ago (!).  My first reflection is how much the novel (and, secondarily, the FASA Star Trek RPG supplement The Klingons, also authored by John M. Ford) have shaped my understanding of who the Klingons "really" are. I believe this was the first really sympathetic portrayal of the Klingons, written from a Klingon point of view. I mean, in my current post-Dominion war Shackleton Expanse Star Trek Adventures RPG campaign, there are Human-Klingon and Romulan-Klingon fusions, and there is even a small renascent Imperial Klingon States in the Expanse. In fact, one of my best pieces of game writing for this campaign was their "declaration" of the new IKS.

A second reflection, provoked in part also by some of the journalism about Star Trek: Discovery, is that the Klingons have been reinvented several times. So any Star Trek GM will need to decide which Klingons they are using - or which combination of Klingon-types they are select for the Klingons in their game. For example, while Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation had this weird idea that repairing disabilities with prosthetics was somehow un-Klingon and/or dishonorable, the Klingons in The Final Reflection have all kinds of prosthetics - even obvious plastic facial prosthetics. Similarly, notions like the Black Fleet and the significance of "the naked stars" start here, with John M. Ford.

A final reflection is that whoever wrote Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, must have been influenced by The Final Reflection. There are just to many similarities in themes, and in the core conspiracies present in the movie to make this happen by accident. Some of Ford's themes spill back to Enterprise as well, particularly the "humans first" movement which seeks to cut off Earth from other worlds.

This is a very enjoyable novel, with a lot of action and a lot of heart, and some really evocative literary references as well. Anyone who has Klingons reading The Once and Future King is doing Klingons and Trek the right way. 

It was nice to see an acknowledgement of John M. Ford in STA's new Klingon Core Book.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

#StayAtHome: Paul Waters' "The Republic of Vengeance"


When I purchased Paul Waters' The Republic of Vengeance at Uncle Edgar's (the back room of Uncle Hugo's SF bookstore, where mysteries and historical novels live), Elizabeth told me that some of the regulars, who are fans of novels set in classical antiquity didn't like the homosexuality in the novel. Apparently they didn't look at the last paragraph of the Historical Note at the back of the book:

"It should perhaps be noted that bisexuality was ubiquitous in the ancient world, and well attested in the sources. Such behavior was not, in itself, an object of censure, and this remained true until the end of the classical period when the Church, wielding its growing political power, began to impose its own uniform blueprint on human relations." 

This book in fact qualifies as a gay novel. Marcus, the Roman protagonist, is gay and a major arc in the novel is the development of his lifelong relationship with his Greek lover, the athlete Menexenos. But it is not a typical gay novel, as one of its abiding themes is a young man's quest for vengeance against the pirate who killed his father (and indeed a whole shipload of hostages, of which Marcus was the only survivor). This quest leads the young man into the Greek and eventually Roman war against Phillip the Fifth of Macedon, who has designs on the whole of Greece (and possibly the whole Mediterranean).

Rome is still a Republic, and during the course of the novel (albeit offscreen) Hannibal is finally defeated, while closer to center stage, Phillip and his pirate lover Dikaiarchos wreck chaos across the Greek peninsula. The last novel I read, David Anthony Durham's The Risen tells the story of the Spartacus slave revolt against Rome; it happens a bit after this novel, and I swear that there is way more explicit raunch, gay and straight, in Durham's novel than in Winters'. The latter is far more interested in Hellenistic philosophy than in gay sex, but Paul Winters tells a good story. 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

#StayAtHome: Spartacus, Corona, Cuboniks


Two of these books are among my best reads of the year. David Anthony Durham's The Risen is a novel of the Spartacus uprising during the Roman Republic. It is written in short chapters, each conveying the perspective of a different character who was part of the Spartacus movement. You get to see how the movement and individual characters evolve over time. I had dinner with David once (and with Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson) 12 years ago or so, and it is amazing to see how his career and Nnedi's have progressed. David is best known for the Acacia fantasy trilogy, but now that I have read "The Risen", I want to read another of his historical novels, Pride of Carthage, which is about Hannibal. This was my best read of 2020 to date; I read it slowly over the summer and fall. Like all really good books, finishing it leaves a bit of a hole.

Andreas Malm's Corona, Crisis, and Climate Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century was the other great read of 2020. It looks at the intersections between the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. It asks some difficult questions, like why did (most) states respond very aggressively to COVID-19 while choosing not to respond in significant ways to the climate crisis, which has been killing 150,000 people a year for the last four decades. The book makes a persuasive case that climate change is a primary driver of pandemics, as local habitat disruption forces pathogen-carrying species to migrate. Malm revises radical disaster theory (which emphasizes social factors as the drivers of disaster) by showing how capital in fact drives climate crises and in turn drives biological crises like pandemics. (Note that while the text engages with James O'Connor, one of the founders of Ecological Marxism, it fails to engage with other compelling radical ecologies, such as the Marxist eco-feminisms of Vananda Shiva, Maria Mies, and others. More on the exclusion of non-European thought in a bit.)

Malm's solution is a call for war communism to address the dual crises of pandemics and climate crises. This requires the exercise of state power, so anarchism is out because it rejects using the most critical tool. Similarly, social democracy is out, because it is ineffective in crisis periods. His deus ex machina is that simultaneous Leninist revolutions will happen in multiple countries - somehow. Because he doesn't engage with capitalism as a world-system though, there is no theory behind how these "simultaneous" revolutions might occur, or how they will stay true to their original goals once state power is taken. Here he relies on Adorno and Trotsky to keep the revolutions true. 

You can't get more magical thinking or more Eurocentrism in one serving, and given the terrible track record of Trotskyism in the real world (zero successful revolutions, almost zero traction outside Europe and North America) this is a really self-defeating place to land. Still though, there is a lot of exciting food for thought in this small book, and much of the text left me very hopeful that positive, rapid change on a world scale still might be possible. Malm creates the sense of urgency for the change, and a sense of possibility; it's just that his analysis and prescriptions really need to step outside the European and Western Marxist frames.

Then there is The Xenofeminist Manifesto by the five-country collective Laboria Cuboniks. I read it in about an hour on the exercise bike, and you can too. The point of the text is a bit drowned out by its graphic design, but I gather the main points are to put forward xenofeminism as an anti-essentialist, pro-science, trans-friendly revolutionary feminism for the digital age. None of this is bad. 

What is bad is the way that the text is absolutely smothered by the design. It reminded me a lot of the cover and interior of the Swedish old-school metal RPG Mork Borg ("Dark Fortress"), which came out 2 years after The Xenofeminist Manifesto

Which images below come from the manifesto, and which come from the RPG? Choose your own adventure, but no more of this, please!