Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Different Light

My fourth book for Vintage Science Fiction Month is Elizabeth A. Lynn's A Different Light. It was published in 1978, so Lynn's novel just squeeks in under the Little Red Reviewer's definition of "vintage" as 1979. I don't like to think of my senior year in high school as the threshold, but there you go.

A lot of important things happened in '79, including the Sandinista and Iranian Revolutions. That year was the beginning of the end of a revolutionary cycle: the great wave that began with the Great Spring Victory in Vietnam, and ended with the unfortunate stalemates of El Salvador and Guatemala.

In one sense it's easy to see Lynn's novel as part of that wave. It was a late '70s mainstream SF novel with perfectly "out" and untroubled LGBTQ individuals. Not to mention "polycules" all over the place!

Queer space!

Those weren't easy times to be "out" as an LGBTQ author or to write SF with "out" characters. After all these years, I still remember the derision that an Ares reviewer brought to the back cover blurb for Lynn's Watchtower: "An Adventure Story for Feminists and Humanists." I went right out and bought that book! No regrets!

So what was the back cover blurb for A Different Light?

"Jimson had twenty years to live. Or one."

Jimson is a young adult on a backwater world. He's a successful artist, rather than a farmboy, but one might think he's a bit of a whiney Luke. Jimson's unhappy because he feels stuck on the planet New Terrain. He has a genetic disease which is treatable there (and really on any civilized world or space station) but which will explode into uncontrollable mutations if he goes into the Hype (i.e., hyperspace).

So that's bad.

I actually had to check myself on the perception that he's whiney. That perception is a form of biological/health-based privilege. Ableism if you like. Jimson has a right to feel stuck and whiney.

And Jimson has another reason to be unhappy too. His first lover, Russell, took off a number of years ago for space.  Russell didn't stay in touch, either. Jimson has a double loss going on.

So of course, Jimson is going to go off into the Hype to look for Russell.

Jimson hangs out in a spaceport and soon meets Leiko, a female spacer who becomes his lover. He makes art and hangs out in a spacer bar. Jimson makes friends with a number of other spacers.

It's worth a short digression to point out that Lynn's spacers have a culture apart from others in society. They have their own social rules, such as no questions. Spacers offer information about themselves to others only after a greater sense of intimacy/affinity/trust has been established. So we have the social anonymity of the big city/port city; the social nexus for the emerence of LGBTQ cultures. Here you can see traces of the lineage that began with Samuel R. Delany's working-class spacer/outsiders - and presumed sexual outlaws (1) - from Babel-17 and Nova. This lineage passes through Lynn's work and eventually leads to the protagonists in Melissa Scott's novels.

Jimson and Russell reunite. They have an adventure together. Jimson, star captain Russell, and his two hired crew go off to plunder religious artifacts from a primitive planetbound tribe (2). They are classic space assholes worthy to be PCs in virtually any Traveller RPG campaign.

Other things happen.

Jimson's cancer mutates with a vengeance. There's no magic cure, but the novel has a very interesting, open ending.

Something important occurred to me after I finished reading the novel. Just a few years after the publication of A Different Light, I had a significant life-changing experience that gave me something in common with Jimson. I met my first lover, and all too soon, he simply went off into space too. The silence became unbearable. I felt alone for a very long time - for years, in fact.

Thank god for my comrades in the Central America solidarity movement of those days; only a few really knew how how to support a gay comrade in the early '80s, but they helped me live in different ways and experience things greater than myself; things worth living for.

They helped me see a different light.


(1) See the sexual outlaw aka gay ubermench in John Rechy's City of Night.  Delany more or less lived/endorsed the practice without embracing the ideology.

(2) I'm reasonably confident that Iain M. Banks lifted and twisted this scene Banks-style for Consider Phlebas.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Medieval Midwestern

The third book that I read for Vintage Science Fiction Month was Clifford D. Simak's Enchanted Pilgrimage (1975). This novel is technically SF, since it features UFOs (wheels of flame right out of the Book of Ezekiel) and a baby robot. However, it has the feel and structure of a traditional fantasy quest novel. A scholar from Wyalusing University discovers an ancient manuscript hidden within the binding of another book. His discovery becomes known, which triggers the murderous jealously of a churchman. The hero flees toward the Wasteland to the west. On his journey new companions gather and a fellowship forms between the protagonist, a rafter goblin from the university library, a woodsman and his intelligent raccoon companion, a gnome, a girl (from the Wasteland) and a swamp-rafter.

Now the Wyalusing University reference is a giveaway. That place-name refers to the county of southwestern Wisconsin that was so beloved by Simak. Way Station was also set there, and I am sure some of his other novels feature this landscape as well. The pastoral themes Simak is known for come out in this novel. Most of the action is travelling across a landscape. I believe the Wastelands through which the PCs - I mean, characters, travel include the prairies of Minnesota and South Dakota, and I'm sure that the "Misty Mountains" where the novel ends are in fact the Black Hills.

So what is this world? Is it a post-apocalyptic setting? A late-medieval (1975) Christian alternate history North America with Neanderthals but without Indians? (And where have we seen that kind of thing before - and quite recently?)  All the characters tell us is that there are at least three parallel Earths: the one we know (and there is a motorcycle riding, gun shooting "action scholar" who comes from our world; the one shown in this story with its mix of humans, fey creatures, UFOs and robots; and one with signifiantly more magic, from which one of the character's parents hail.

There is one additional clue that the world of the story ties in to Simak's City.  There is a shabby Odin-like character called the Gossiper, who is accompanied by a shabby, moulting raven and a little dog with spectacles.

It was a fun read, and has inspired me to create a Medieval Midwestern campaign setting using Whitehack. Rest assured though that Native people aren't missing from my game.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Gone To The Dogs

My second book for Vintage Science Fiction Month was Clifford D. Simak's City. The novel is what John Clute's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls a fixup: a set of linked stories assembled into novel form (1). City was first published in 1952, but some of the stories collected in the novel go back as far as 1944.

The novel tells the future history of humans, dogs, robots, and mutants over thousands of years. Lots of people talk transhumanism. Let's face it: transhumanism is mostly just talky-talk. I mean monkey-talk.

But unlike the work of Cordwainer Smith, where for the most part in spite of transhumanist trappings people mostly don't change, in Simak's City, people really do change.

In fact, humans mostly just go away - most of them in a profoundly transhumanist way. Just read the short story "Desertion". It was very meaningful to rediscover this story of a man and his dog on Jupiter, and the union they achieve. I read this short story in an English class short story anthology, and along with Ray Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day", it has haunted me until now. The former is joyful but bittersweet. The latter is just so sad.

We see the rise of the mutants, and man's uplift of dogs - and the "handy" robot companions that man devises for dogs. We see robots: dutiful, wild, self-directed, lonely. We see several kinds of diaspora, including interstellar and multiplanar.

Has the book aged well? In terms of its vision of the future, I'd say it is a transhumanism unsurpassed; ironically, it's also a transhumanism that is rather embodied, and that keeps its feet on the ground. The novel does not pass the Bechdel Test, although Simak's characterization of women gets better in later novels.

(1) Closer to home here in Minnesota, Eleanor Arnason is also very good at writing collections of linked stories. See her Big Mama Stories and Hidden Folk: Icelandic Fantasies for examples (2).
(2) Huldufolk is worth looking up.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Monday, January 18, 2016

Warriors Of The Red Planet RPG - Now Available!

Both the print and PDF editions of Thomas Denmark and Al Krombach's  Warriors of the Red Planet RPG are now available. The beta version was very polished, and had lavish full color illustrations on the front and back cover. This edition has a more old-school cover, but also has significantly more interior illustrations including for monsters.

If planetary romances in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett are your thing, AND you like old school RPGs, you should check this RPG out.  I have run the beta version several times in the last year, and had an opportunity to play in Brett Slocum's Tekumel games using WOTRP this fall!  The game does a good job emulating planetary romances - the best of any print RPG to date - and is very appropriate for Tekumel games set in distant, more high technology eras such as the Latter Times.

All my posts on tWarriors of the Red Planet from the Fate of Tekumel blog are linked here.

I ordered a print copy from Lulu today. I'll get the PDF once it's available through DriveThru.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Reading And Remembering

Today I overheard two of the staff at Moon Palace Books talking about posting David Bowie's list of his top 100 books. I read a G+ post over lunch in which someone said that the best way to honor an artist is to do something creative. I thought what I could do today is start a list of my top 100 books. 

I'm only including ones that I've read cover-to-cover. So no Bible and no Dhalgren. Yet.

In no particular order or precedence, here's a few to get us going:
  1. Miguel Marmol by Roque Dalton. The autobiography of one of the founders of the Communist Party of El Salvador, interviewed by Roque Dalton, El Salvador's greatest poet, himself a martyr and exemplar of the next great revolutionary generation of the 1970s. If you only read one book on the '20's-30's, it should be this one. 
  2. The German Ideology by Karl Marx (particularly for the 11 Theses on Feuerbach; it is possible to skip the rest).
  3. Way Station by Clifford D. Simak.
  4. Horses Make A Landscape More Beautiful by Alice Walker. The first book of poetry I read.
  5. Poemas Clandestinas by Roque Dalton. Wrote poems that incited revolution.
  6. The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James. Still the most important book about the Haitian Revolution.
  7. The Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delaney.
  8. The Once and Future King by T.H. White.
  9. Ring of Swords by Eleanor Arnason.
  10. The Corum Saga by Michael Moorcock.
  11. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. All the world's rubbish about memes started here, but that's not why this book is important.
  12. Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittengenstein.
  13. The Violence of Abstraction by Derek Sayer
  14. Babel-17, Nova, Empire Star, The Ballad of Beta-2, the Fall of the Towers trilogy, and the Jewels of Aptor by Samuel R. Delaney. We'll leave a few lines for other people.
  15. Dune by Frank Herbert.
  16. The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels.
  17. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. I have a feeling this list may end up more Plato than Marx, but the real reason this book is on the list is because I discovered a possible reference in Boethius' text to the Gnostic prayer-poem "Thunder, Perfect Mind."
  18. The Scar by China Mieville.
  19. Muhammad by Eliot Weinberger. A very short book of beautiful stories about the life of the Prophet, composed as an act of resistance on the eve of Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq. I read a selection from it at the M.A.R. Barker memorial. 
  20. Night's Master & Death's Master by Tanith Lee.
  21. The Long War and Power in the Isthmus by James Dunkerley. Two important works on the political economy of Central America.
  22. The Elric saga by Michael Moorcock.
  23. The Anti-Social Family by Michele Barrett and Mary McIntosh, and Women's Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis by Michele Barrett. The first of these is the most important, and critiques the central role of family ideology in our politics, and how little it offers families, women, or anyone else.
  24. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography by David Halperin.
  25. History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 by Michel Foucault.
  26. Stone Butch Blues & Trangender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come by Leslie Feinberg. The former is a working class novel set in Buffalo, NY, and the latter is a chapbook published by World View Forum, the print house of Workers World Party.
  27. Multitude by Michael Hardt and Tony Negri.
  28. City by Clifford D. Simak.
  29. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
  30. The Tomoe Gozen saga by Jessica Amanda Salmonson.
  31. A Different Light by Elizabeth A. Lynn.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

SNSO! Strange Stars!

Last night was my first time running a Saturday Night Space Opera! event for our open group of players! I had eight players show up for my Fate Strange Stars game, which ran from 6 PM-10:15 or so at the Fantasy Flight Games Event Center.

We started with character generation, and that went pretty smoothly. I gave everyone a copy of the Strange Stars setting book, and copies of chapters Ch. 2 and 3 of the Strange Stars Fate Rule Book, which cover character generation and clades (races), respectively.

Jay's PC, and improvised Fate points!

The characters were:
  • Shrike, a space-ninja. Shrike stands for Synthetic Humanoid Reactionary Intelligent Killing Engine. Shrike was a true human in a "robot suit." His goal was never to give up the game that he was not a machine. One of his aspects was a stock phrase: "I am NOT a human being!" 
  • Dorchah, a Blesh (a crystalline insect with the downloaded memories of a human medic) with telekinetic abilities. This was the first time the player, Deanna, had played a tabletop RPG, although she is a World of Warcraft guildmaster! By the time of the climactic battle, she had really grown into her role as a combat medic, telekinetically putting respirator masks on the crew to protect them from nanites, and brewing up combat drugs to juice up the Hyehoon PC!
  • Butkowski, a burly, ornery Smaragdine engineer. We're pretty sure Butkowski couldn't be his real name, but he was so touchy that his crewmates didn't want to push on this issue. In the climactic battle with a Van Vogtian Coeurl in a cargo elevator, Engineer Butkowski pulled a trick on the energy starved beast!
  • Bhat Akana, a Voidglider. His name comes from the Hindi word meaning "Wonder." A bit before the climactic battle, Bhat Akana used his Voidglider senses, which include "hearing" way into the EM range, to determine that Shrike was most definitely not a robot! This was a very clever use of Voidglider base abilities skills.
  • Tcar, one of the feathered but flightless avian uplifts of the Hyehoon clade! Looking at Eric's character sheet after the game, I noticed he dropped in a Star Trek reference, listing Tchar's homeworld as Skorr! Tchar was the ship's pilot, but used his claws to great effect in the battle with the Coerul!
  • Taan, was a unique Moravec created by the most experienced Fate player. Taan is roughly humanoid, with three Waldo-like arms. Taan specialized in Creating Advantages during the combat, distracting the Coerul with the hypnotic gyrations of his three robotic arms, and in the last moments of the battle leaped onto the Coerul's back to distract it further.
  • Arkadina, an extremely chipper and talkative member of the angelic Deva clade. She felt truly called to battle against the Coerul, seeing it as her opposite: a demon from the darkest depths of hyperspace, and a grave existential threat to her god. She landed many blows against the monster, and even managed to slice off one of the tentacles emerging from the beast's back!
  • Aasimar, an androgenous Yantran technoshaman. She was committed to nonviolent diplomacy - even in the midst of battle, and Created Advantage against the Coerul by going into a trance and beginning a compassionate death trance for the beast. Every time Aasimar used her powers, her gender affect switched; the player created the gender pronoun indicator below (a tiny table tent) so that the changes were visible to the other players.

Fate is opimized for a group of 3-5 players and a GM. I've run Fate of Tekumel games with eight players, and that worked OK, but eight is really a big table to manage for a fast and furious Strange Stars game!

Here are a few things to make a big game like this go smoothly:
  • Bring enough Fate point chips for everyone - OR, be ready to improvise with little pieces of paper. I seriously underestimated how many players we would have! Fortunately, Jay Mac Bride had brought along some colored index cards. People made their own Fate points using the cards, and I folded cards in half to create little one-use Boost table tent indicators.
  • When big groups get excited, everyone is talking at once, and less extroverted players, who may have good ideas, can get frustrated. Enforce a more structured flow of play, rotating the action from player to player either clockwise or counter clockwise. I did this at the mid-game break at one player's suggestion. It made a real difference at the table. If memory services, this  procedure was part of the normal sequence of play with Diaspora too.
  • Table tents with character names are critical. 
  • I also create a GM map of players around the table, like the one below.

  • Finally, I use a Leuchturm 1917 journal for all my notes - work, reading groups, and game prep - and in-game jottings. I use Bullet Journal notation wherever possible or to-do lists and record keeping. It really helps to have everything in one place, with a quick method for notes.

The players were very engaged, had high energy, great ideas, and pushed the action forward at a breakneck pace. It was a great game to GM on the coldest night of the winter.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Strange Stars A-To-Z: "V" Is For V&V

Illustration by David Lewis Johnson

"V&V"? That's Volkun & Voidgliders of course. But it could almost be the name of a roleplaying game - or at least a campaign using the Strange Stars setting!

These two races are tied together inextricably in Strange Stars.

The Vokun have an entire empire named after them. Their young are lean, aggressive, impusive, and ambitious. Their elders are corpulent, conspiratorial, and ambitious. But the Vokun are an empire in name only. The reality is one of clan elders vying against each other for commercial dominance and political power.

Think the Great Houses from Dune, but with no Emperor.

Every clan elder is a Harkonnen.

Which leads me to a new campaign idea. I'm currently rereading Dune for the first time since high school. I noticed someting in the text that had never registered before:

"We must not, however, ignore the possibility the Duke has contracted with the Guild to remove him to a place of safety outside the System. Others in like circumstances have become renegade Houses, taking family atomics and shields and fleeing beyond the Imperium."

So the Imperium has an outside? How had I missed that before?

Now, the Strange Stars setting has many outsides. The core setting we know through the Strange Stars Game Setting Book is just the fragments of what was once a much, much larger civilization. Many hyperspace nodes are now quiescent, hiding connections to long-lost systems waiting to be rediscovered. There are many systems out there in which to run, hide, and explore.

This is very useful game-wise. One could imagine a Vokun clan that has lost big in the political game. They might decide that their only option for continued survival is to strike out on their own.

Maybe they had time to assemble a clan flotilla. But maybe the elder only has time to evacuate with a single huge clan ship.  Alternatively, the elder might only have at his disposal a single modest space yacht.

Desperate times.

But no matter how desperate the times and how limited the resources, that evacuation will soon need to transform itself into an exploration and surveying mission. And eventually of course trade and commerical exploitation.

Because that's all the Vokun really know how to do.

So that clan elder will need at least one Voidglider, the sleek, space-skinned clade that serve as the Vokun's space scouts. The Voidgliders are expert at "sniffing out" hyperspace nodes. Perhaps the Vokun elder has a Voidglider who serves his clan already. But perhaps he doesn't, and the elder will need to mount a raid on the Voidglider space-reservation in order to get a scout or better yet at least have a breeding pair of the species.

An entire tribe of Voidgliders might be persuaded to come along with the Vokun evacuation fleet in exchange for a "better deal" in the future: no reservation.

There could be a whole Strange Stars campaign here: V&V.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Strange Stars Saturday - January 9

Saturday, January 9th, from 6-10 PM, I'll be running a Fate Strange Stars game at the Fantasy Flight Games Event Center in Roseville, Minnesota. This is our first Saturday Night Space Opera game at our new venue, which features a very comfortable play environment with a full service restaraunt and bar.


The Ship wakes you up. There's something the Company wants - and it's OLD and BIG!

This is an adventure set in Trey Causey's Strange Stars game setting, featuring the Fate system rules I wrote for Trey's setting. Character templates for quick builds will be provided! The Fate system is easy and fun and the rules will be taught!

Jump over to the Saturday Night Space Opera blog to RSVP!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Something For Simak: Way Station (1963)

Illustration by Wood, with more here

January is Vintage Science Fiction Month, with "vintage" being arbitrarily defined as 1979 (or earlier), and my first completed book for the month is Clifford D. Simak's Way Station. I have also read over a hundred pages so far of the new Simak collection.

Simak is good. He's also a local, having grown up in Southwestern Wisconsin, and having been an editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I am curious to know which Minnesota authors consider him an influence. I am tempted to think Eleanor Arnason would be one; I should probably ask her.

Like fellow Wisconsin author August Derleth, and New York's Arch Merrill, there is a strong element of the regional writer to Clifford Simak. In fact, all of the novel Way Station takes place in what appears to be a farm dwelling in rural Wisconsin. The book conveys a strong feeling of nature on farmland in close proximity to the eastern bluffs along the Mississippi River.

So it is all the more extraordinary that the novel deals so effectively with the themes of world (and galactic) peace from the point of view of a seemingly ordinary, if immortal and lonely, Wisconsinite.

The novel also deals with spirituality and mysticism a bit more than a contemporary SF fan might like, and I gather this is a recurrent theme in Simak's work. I rather enjoyed that element of the novel; it reminds me a bit of the work of Cordwainer Smith.

I'll continue reading Simak this month, because the Second Foundation Reading Group (the oldest continuous SF reading group in the Twin Cities) has chosen the works of Clifford D. Simak as its topic for our gathering on January 31, 2 PM, at Parkway Pizza in Minneapolis.

I'm also following through on something I set out to read for last year's Vintage Science Fiction Month: re-reading Frank Herbert's Dune.  Last year, I bought a new copy of Dune specifically for that purpose. Then I went on to read other things. I'm a few chapters into Dune now, so we'll try to see this one through even though it may take a bit more than a month.

But Simak is the priority for right now.

We're on to City next.