Sunday, February 24, 2008

Book Review: "Grey" by Jon Armstrong

I came across Jon Armstrong via an interview on a sci-fi/fantasy podcast that I listen to, Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing. (Oh, that's right! I need to talk about my podcasts sometime. Well, it'll have to wait.) Anyway, Jon has written a book entitled "Grey", which is available in audiobook form for free at It is also hilarious.

Grey is more than just the title of the book: it's also a way of life. The main character, Michael Rivers, is a part of the Grey movement, who are all believers in the virtues of the quiet, the plain, and the serene. Michael is also part of one of the Corporate Families, one of the aristocratic elite. His family, RiverGroup, is involved in security and identity. At the beginning of the novel, RiverGroup is preparing for a merger with another Family, in the form of a marriage to Nora, the daughter of the other company's president. Nora and Michael are both Grey, and are deeply in love.

But then tragedy strikes! Michael is attacked just after their fourth and final Publicity date, and his father blames Nora's family for the attack. Michael's Father, Hiro Bruce Rivers, subscribes to the Ultra movement, which is what you get if you take Heavy Metal culture and turn it to eleven. It is the fashion of the Loud, of the Obnoxious, of the Crude. Naturally enough, Michael and his father hate each other. Hiro forbids Michael to see Nora, and sets up another corporate merger wedding with another family, RiboCool.

That's essentially the set-up for the story. Will Michael and Nora get together in the end? Who attacked Michael, and why? Will Michael choose between his love for Nora or his duties as a son of one of the aristocratic families? Will he be forced to marry the daughter of RiboCool, who pretentiously combines four separate and contradictory fashion styles?

I thought Grey was a wonderful piece of satire, and an amusingly original concept for a sci-fi novel. Armstrong's writing is excellent, and his reading voice is perfect for the pod-cast. The relationship between Hiro and Michael reminded me of this Calvin and Hobbes comic, with the difference being that Michael's preferred style of music involves dropping feathers lightly onto the keys of a piano.

Perhaps the coolest thing about the novel is that you can hear it for free from Podiobooks -- try it before you buy it and all that. Give it a shot! I think you'll enjoy it.

Oh, and...disclaimer. Violence, sex, and foul language. Mostly from Michael's father and his friends, as you might expect.

Bottom line: ***1/2 stars out of five.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Book Recommendation: "Shriek: An Afterword" by Jeff Vandermeer

I recently went through a harvest of Listmania lists on Amazon, from those I found on the page for China Meiville's "Perdido Street Station". It seemed like a promising way to break into reading the current "New Weird" fantasy sub-genre movement, uh, thing. (New Weird. It's a fairly ambiguous term, but generally, think Fantasy (often dark fantasy) with a more "modern" viewpoint and usually an urban (modern or pseudo-steampunk) setting, that sidesteps Tolkien's legacy when tracing its lineage (which manifests itself, in the books I've read at least, in attempting to include an element of psychological realism despite the fantastic setting and events, as opposed to the more archetypal characterizations one finds in Tolkien and other writers of Epic Fantasy.)

All of the above is true of the first book from the Amazon lists that I've gotten from the library, "Shriek: An Afterword" by Jeff Vandermeer. Shriek takes place in the fictional city of Ambergris, in an unnamed fictional world. It is ostensibly an Afterword to another work (which does not exist in real life), written by the sister of the other work's author (who has gone missing). The brother and sister duo are named Duncan and Janice Shriek (thus the title), and the story involves Duncan's two obsessions: first, his obsession with the mysterious fungus-filled world of tunnels beneath the city, and second his obsessive love for a girl named Mary Sabon, who is at first his student and, in the end, the person who discredits and ruins his name in the public mind. But of course all of these are almost secondary characters compared to the city itself, its history, its current state of politics and turmoil, and the tensions with and fear of the original inhabitants of the area, the Gray Caps: beings who live in the world Underground, having been driven there by the first human colonists, who may or may not secretly control the minds of the human populace of the city (this is where Mary and Duncan differ in their theories), and who are never given concrete physical description within the course of the novel.

One of the critiques leveled at the New Weird from the more traditional fantasy is that the New Weird is Ugly. This is the same critique that I have heard one of my favorite authors, John C. Wright, level against the "traditional" "literary" genre (you know, the one that claims not to be a genre). Novels concerned with psychological realism tend to include a lot of psychological baggage, which in turn means not flinching away from the faults (and underlying reason for the faults) of their characters. Which means that essentially a lot of dirty laundry is aired, even on the part of the protagonists. This is certainly the case in Shriek, where certainly none of the characters are treated as being blameless in their actions. There are no "good guys" or "bad guys" in the novel; and sometimes just when you expect someone to be a caricature (such as the supposedly narrow-minded religious leader that tries to ban one of Duncan's early books), Vandermeer surprises you (as when the religious leader, himself having suffered a scandal, becomes one of Duncan's closest friends, though no less a religious man). I'm not going to fall on either side of this argument: I can see both sides of the argument, and enjoy books written by those on both sides. (Which side I would rather write like myself remains to be seen.)

(The other "ugly" aspect of the New Weird is that it often draws on influences from the horror genre. There are some disturbing or shocking images in Shriek, which you may want to watch out for if you're not a fan of being disturbed or shocked. Mostly it is more dark than gruesome, though there are a couple violent images at certain points.

Literarily, Shriek exists in that lovely world of "suggesting" meaning, where the metaphorical (or mythopoeic?) elements are there to "wake" a meaning rather than to "convey" a meaning, as George MacDonald once said. Shriek is an excellent example of this. The Underground, perhaps the most powerful metaphoric image in the novel, can be seen from any number of potent angles. It's exactly the sort of technique that I want my own work to employ.

In all, then, I would heartily recommend the book to anyone interested in works of the fantastical, but who aren't necessarily looking for mere escapism. This is a tough, complex, and ultimately rewarding book, and one that I devoured with much excitement. I'll be reading more of Vandermeer in the future.

Monday, February 18, 2008

March: First Draft '08?

Hey All,

Last year around this time I was frantically working on the first draft of a novel, for National Create The First Draft of Some Form of Creative Project In a Month Month, or whatever the blessed acronym was. Well, this year February wouldn't really work for me, and besides, it's the shortest month in the year. This year, I think March would make a really good month to write the first draft of some form of creative project -- and also, I think that making the name a bit shorter might be handy as well. So, I am proclaiming March as the second annual First Draft month. The goal of it, as you may recall, is to create the first draft of some form of creative project in a month. Last year my goal was to write the first draft of a novel. I may very well go with that again. In any case, if you want to participate, simply contact me in any of the following ways:

1. E-mail me, if you know my e-mail address. (Hint: my first name dot my last name at the google web-mail domain.)

2. Send me a message via facebook. This can be a note, or a post on my wall.

3. Leave a comment on my blog. This will no doubt prove the least popular of the options, as I doubt anyone reads my blog any more anyway.

It might be helpful to include what you are planning to create in the text of your message.

More details on First Draft Month to come.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Tolkien vs. Jackson, Pt 2

The Tolkien estate is suing New Line Cinema, claiming that New Line has not paid them a cent, other than the initial upfront payment of $62,000. They claim that New Line owes them 7.5% on all three films' process. Apparently, they have been trying to negotiate a settlement with New Line since the release of the films, but have been unable to settle out of court. New Line has also prevented them from auditing the receipts of the last two films.

If successful, the suit would effectively cancel the upcoming two Hobbit movies.

(So, it's not really Tolkien vs. Jackson, per se, but you get the picture.)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Tolkien vs. Jackson

I know a lot of people are posting this, but I thought I'd go ahead and mention it too, as I agree with it whole-heartedly. Even more than Aragorn making out with a horse, it was the thematic changes in Peter Jackson's films that were problematic to me.

"The age of man is over. The age of the orc has begun!" Ha-rumph.

Engel, Pt 2

The characters, of course, were the first thing to set up when Bekka and I started playing. Even though Bekka was the only (consistent) player in the group, I felt it was important that there actually be a group of characters traveling with her: her character wasn't some lone inquisitor out on her own, but was part of a team of some sort. Also, we figured that if other people from our Planescape campaign wanted to join later, they could take the parts of the other members of her staff.

To that end, we gave her another full-fledged Inquisitor partner, and three specially trained body guards. So the Inquisitional team looked as follows:

1. Naimah (Bekka's Character) - Bekka envisioned Naimah as a sort of liberal, laid-back type, who was interested more in solving issues peacefully than with purging heresy. She comes from a Romani family, but was taken into the church by the Grim Riders when she was young.

Name: Naimah
Background: Complicated History

Acuity: 6
Body: 5
Heart: 5
Will: 3

Understands Scriptures 2d8
Curious 3d4
I am a Gypsy 2d10
Easygoing 3d10
I am an Inquisitor 4d6

Inquisition 2d6
Vlad 2d6

Horse 2d8
Copy of the Scriptures 1d6
Jar of Earth 1d6
Long Dagger 1d4
Bow 2d6
Rope 1d6
Cooking Utensils 1d6
Backpack 1d8
Holy Symbol 2d6
Gold Jewelry 2d6
Notes 1d6
Cloak 2d6
Armor 2d6

Naimah's first conflict involved

2. Vladimir (or Vlad) - We created Vlad to be Naimah's foil, and so made him a hard-nosed, devout heretic-stomper specializing in interrogation. The game is set in Spain, but I wanted the Inquisitional characters to have been assigned there from somewhere else. Vlad is from russia, and we tend to give him a horribly stereotypical russian accent (originally his name was going to be Boris, you see). He's sort of an action hero, as he sees everything in black and white, and can tend to spout one-liners. Vlad is also something of an oddity as far as character-control: Bekka and I "share" him, and either of us can dictate what he does or says in a given situation.

3. Finneas - The first of our three body-guards, Finneas was going to be my friend Lauren's character if she ever played with us. (Thus the vaguely male name for a female character, which Lauren seems to enjoy doing). Finneas is a bit naive in the ways of the world, but excels at personal combat. Lauren later on gave her a special defensive fighting technique involving two short swords. She is specially assigned to Naimah.

4. Josef and Johannan - The other two body guards started out fairly generic, and in fact I wasn't sure how long they were going to last, being the expendable extras and all. Josef and Finneas have since then begun something of a romantic relationship, and Johannan and Josef have had a falling out. (Johannan remains the most expendable character of the group, and bad things tend to happen to him. Bekka and I have decided that this tendency towards bad luck makes him a little paranoid, and a little twitchy.)

The Towns

Town 1 -
One of the reasons that Engel worked so well early on is that I didn't know how long we would be playing it -- it might be one session, it might be a long time -- and so I didn't hold back any ideas for later. Town one, though, was an experiment, a pilot episode, where we started figuring out who everyone was and what the world was like, so it was largely a new idea.

The Inquisitors came to the town and presented themselves to the local priest (or Padre). "Oh, thank God you've come," he said, and explained that one of the local men, an uneducated farmer, had lately begun receiving visions of an apocalyptic nature, and had actually predicted that the end of the world would come within a few months. The other townsfolk were wary of him at first, but his descriptions were so vivid, and his manner so certain, that they began to believe him. The upshot of this was that many of them had ceased to work their fields, because they didn't see any point in it if the world was going to end soon.

Naimah saw the problem as two-fold. First, they needed to get the townsfolk working again, and second, they needed to investigate the farmer to see what was behind his visions -- insanity, deception, or a true gift from God. The priest had the villagers assemble, and Naimah spoke to them, telling them that as the emissary from the Pontifex Maximus, she would be investigating the claims with all the respect and diligence it deserved, but that in the meantime the villagers should get back to work. After a lengthy discussion, she managed to convince the town to split its time between working and prayer. A few of the people, fanatical in their belief, walked out angrily.

The inquisitors immediately set out for the farm. The farmer ended up being a fairly humble, illiterate man, quite frightened, who didn't understand what was happening but who felt that God must surely have given him a great gift in the form of the visions. Though Vlad wanted to take him in for questioning, Naimah simply pointed out that if the Pontifex Maximus hadn't received any news about the impending apocalypse, it seemed odd that the message should be sent to a farmer with a limited audience instead.

Through the conversation, it was revealed that the farmer had begun to receive the visions after meeting a mysterious glowing figure in the hills outside the town. He agreed to take the inquisitors to the place where the meeting had occurred.

After searching around the hillside for a little while, the Inquisitors found a hidden entrance on the side of a hill near the area where the farmer had indicated. Inside was a ladder leading into a pit, and at the bottom of the pit they found a hiding spot with a bedroll and several items of technology from the Time Before; the source of power was unclear. Near the bedroll was a book, with scraps of writing about a "God Machine", with several vague allusions to a broader cult deifying technology. (The cult was mentioned in the Engel sourcebook, but I mixed it with the cult of the God Machine described in the nWoD core book.)

Underneath the bedroll, they found several syringes filled with a green liquid, and one empty syringe. Deducing that this was the source of the farmer's visions, they confronted him with the evidence. His reaction was almost relief, and he accepted that his visions were probably the result of having been drugged. Naimah suspected that he might be bluffing; that perhaps he'd been making up the whole story. She told Vlad to see if he could collect samples of the farmer's handwriting when they returned to the house so as to compare with the writing found in the bunker. As they approached the town, however, they saw smoke: and running, they found it was the farmer's house, on fire. Apparently the fanatical group of people who had stalked away from Naimah's speech had lit his house on fire in an attempt to ensure that the farmer would not "waver" in his faith. As the inquisitors arrived, they had the farmer's wife at knife point. Vlad wanted to attack straight out, but Naimah ordered him down, calling rank as the senior inquisitor. Instead, while she and the farmer tried to talk the small group of people into letting the farmer's wife go, Vlad bashed in the door of the house to see if there was any evidence to be found inside.

For a moment, it looked as though Naimah's arguments were calming down the crowd, but the negotiations soon failed, and the leader of the group slit the throat of the farmer's wife, there in front of everybody. Naimah called for Vlad, who came crashing out of a window of the burning building, papers in his hand, and before he'd even reached the ground he threw a knife into the ringleader's heart.

The rest of the mob settled down at that point.

The papers that Vlad had found proved the farmer's innocence, by was of displaying that he was illiterate (like all good laymen of the Angelitic church). Naimah told Josef to fetch the priest, and as an after-thought sent Johannan as well, to see if he could sneak a peek at the priest's handwriting while the padre himself was out. Josef and the priest arrived moments later, and everything was explained to the priest, who seemed to get more and more nervous as the events were laid out. Finally, Johannan arrived with papers, and it was shown that the priest's handwriting matched the heretical writing in the bunker.

Vlad wanted to interrogate the priest immediately, but Naimah was reluctant to allow this, detesting torture. When it was discovered that the priest had burns on his arms suggesting training to resist torture, they tied him up securely and sent him and one of the full syringes (for analysis) with Johannan to the regional Inquisition office in another city.

After the session, Bekka used one of Naimah's Free Relationship points on the farmer.