Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Compleat Enchanter (1975)

The Compleat Enchanter (1975) by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt is a collection of the first three Harold Shea books from the 1940s. The book is most notable for its inclusion in Appendix N of the first edition Dungeon Master's Guide as an inspiration to that game.

The stories center around Harold Shea, a modern man and psychologist who travels to different literary adventure universes. "The Roaring Trumpet" is Norse myth, "The Mathematics of Magic" is The Faerie Queen, and "The Castle of Iron" is Orlando Furioso (a tale that I've never heard of before). The stories themselves are tongue and cheek, as Harold is a modern man in a highly stylized and not-at-all politically correct tale. If you've ever wanted to see cultural appropriation in its native habitat, this is it.

The tales themselves read dully. I had to take rests to actually read this book through.

These are sexist tales. There no denying it. Oddly enough, Harold is bored of all the "approved" women stereotypes and wants one that's spirited. Here's an indication that the requirements on women of the day were so restrictive that even men were wanting to loosen things up.

When it comes to D&D, this book is rife with source material. Verbal, somatic, and material components for spells originate from these tales. In there, we also see scaled trolls with pointed noses, the basic giant types, web spells that are burned with flaming swords, flying carpets, illusions, fool's gold, magic choking hands, random encounters, and a great deal of the tongue-in-cheek humor that pervades early D&D.

While it's not badly written, I can't recommend the book. It's not a total stinker, but aside from curiosity or raging determination, there's no reason to go here. I'll happily lend you the book if you do. You don't need to give the book back.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Merchanter's Luck (1982)

Merchanter's Luck (1982) by C.J. Cherryh continues in the Company Wars universe. In this compact experiential story, sometimes grim and sometimes sweet, a merchanter behind on his luck propositions the wrong girl at the right time, pushing his own luck past its limit.

This is a "small story" as SF adventures go. He runs a tramp freighter. She's stuck in a go-nowhere job. Together they hope to find some advantage. No kingdoms are not won or lost based on their bets, and that's exactly what makes this such a compelling story. There's nothing in the story that guarantees success, making failure a very real option every step of the way.

As novels go, this is solid, unfluffed, chewy SciFi, worthy of its own made for TV movie. While some parts of it are archaic, most of it still stands up.

Because the book is so short, the character stuff that might seem fluffy in a big book doesn't feel like fluff at all. In this book, the internal dilemmas of the characters work as substance. Their flaws add complexity. They mismatched goals add conflict. And trust, trust is in mighty short supply.

"If they only trusted each other, they would sort this out immediately," you'd say. Yes, that's exactly right, but you can't buy trust at the docks, and certainly never in bulk.

I'm giving this one lots of stars and a rare "recommend" for anyone who likes space opera, noir, or space cowboy stories.

Double Jack - Opening Pages

Double Jack is an alternate history fantasy novel set in 1926 Baltimore. The lead character, Jack, is a wizard in hiding, drifting from job to job, keeping his head down. The last thing that he wants is trouble, but trouble seems to want him. When a gangster sets him up on a date that he can't refuse, Jack soon finds himself entangled in the web of his own past, while Theosophers, Atheists, Communists, and Catholics determine his future.


In 1926,  I was ready to jump the first train out of Baltimore. I’d done it before, never knowing when home couldn’t be home anymore. On a few occasions I hadn’t even packed my bag. I had to leave immediately or never leave at all.

Life was like trying to listen to the radio, which was new in those days, carefully tuning it so that the station came in clear, but every time I stepped away to sit and enjoy the program, static leaped into the channel, so that I was forever moving in a vain attempt to get the station clear, and it was that constant getting up that made me increasingly desperate to sit down, until I finally switched off the radio and collapsed into my chair. I may have been disgusted with the radio, but at least I was sitting. The only real difference was that in my life, I couldn't turn off that radio. I was always adjusting the dial but always hearing nothing.

At that time I worked the night shift at a warehouse. I was the night clerk, the person responsible for signing off on the paperwork and fixing the books. One night, my proverbial radio turned to static when somebody knocked on the shipping office door. That wasn’t unusual. I expected to see mobsters wanting a late pickup. Mob bosses like their champagne as much as the next lush, usually because they have some pretty girls to entertain. Instead of gangsters, two respectable seeming men came in, completely unlike the teamsters outside, meaning that they were either revenuers or missionaries. I had no reason to speak with either, but given the option, I would have preferred that they were revenuers.

Those two men were important and I would soon know them far better than I had the right to. They didn’t introduce themselves then, so I'll jump in and introduce them for you. The disheveled one who sat down next to my desk like a deadbeat uncle was Sloe Joe, a man who could make any well tailored suit look like a thrift store purchase. The other guy, who wore his clothes well, like a blue blood, was Fancy Charlie. He said nothing, as he almost always said nothing, standing by the shipping office door. He always kept his handkerchiefs well ironed, standing fashionably out of his pocket.

To this day, I don’t know their real names. They never told me those names nor wished to tell me. I tried asking once, but Joe just smiled and said, “Sloe Joe’s all you gotta know.” I might have pressed on the subject, but as I went by a fake name as well, dropping the subject seemed like the best move.
As I capped my pen, the red-faced Joe started bantering like an old friend. “Hey, bird, it’s a night out there. What a night. Rain and mist and all that. You know those really chilly days that just drive you nuts? This is one of them. For Christ’s sake, why don’t you have the heat on? What kind of cheapskate do you work for?”

The other thing about Joe was that he got you to answer truthfully, without thinking, because he just talked that way. That made him a killer card player.

“We’re out of coal,” I said, stating the facts. “The day shift forgot to order more.”

Joe showed his disgust. “You need a warm bowl of soup, bird,” he said, taking out a wad of bills. “On me. Really. Here, take a fiver. Skip down to that diner on King James Street. They’re open all night and they got a smokin’ dame who serves tables there. Order the franks and beans and you can’t go wrong.”

In translation, that was a respectable way of saying “get lost or else.” That also meant keeping the dockworkers quiet. Five dollars was a lot, but it wasn't what it used to be. Due to inflation, money was always worth less in those days. And as a rule, when offered a bribe, never take the first offer. “The boys here will wonder where I’m off to. I’ll need to buy them some cigarettes.”

Charlie nodded at that.

Joe smiled back. “Smart bird. Here’s a few more bucks. If the waitress says that she don't have no more cartons, don’t take no for an answer. The diner’s always got a few cartons behind the counter.” He tossed in one more dollar. “You gotta tip her, too.”

That was a ridiculous pile of greenbacks just to get dinner, even with inflation. I could feed everyone for a week on that. These nobodies wanted me out the door and I couldn't say no to that kind of money.

“How long should I be gone?” I asked, having no desire to see these men again. As I already had my coat on, I stood, putting on my cheeriest disposition.

Joe inspected me head to toe as I buttoned up.

“Hey, you’re a classy looking guy,” Joe observed. “What’s a guy like you doing down here? You must not be married. Do you have a girl?”

Joe knew the answer by seeing my reaction.

“I got this sister,” Joe offered. “She likes classy guys. How about I set you two up?”

Friday, October 7, 2016

Downbelow Station (1981)

Downbelow Station (1981) by CJ Cherryh is a war story in the style of the great war movies of Hollywood. The story told exceeds the fortunes of any one individual, and as such, follows the fortunes of many, and in doing so, tells the drama of a battle. In this case, the drama is that of Pell Station.

On TV, this novel compares most closely to Battlestar Galactica (2003). I have no doubt that this novel was one of the touchstones behind the series being so influential in the genre of military SF.

Because this novel is a war movie, the story takes forever to wind up, as all the players need to be in their place for when the guns open fire. The first third of the book is entirely dramatic setup. You see the train wrecks going, with one model train after another ramming in the middle of a fake town, and just when you see how things are going, the narrator douses the room in gasoline and burns the house down. That's this book.

Like the best war stories, this one is filled with the brutality of war.

Myself, I found this novel almost impenetrable. With so much plot setup and so many train wrecks, I felt very divorced from the story. I wound up skimming for chapters at a time, no scene catching me at all. When action did come, I found that it came quickly, often with jumps forward in time. This amplified the feeling of disconnection for me. Skipping over the more boring narrative parts often felt like something was skipped. It felt like the editors had sliced out tedious chapters that added nothing while replacing them with nothing.

If this was a film, I would have hit fast forward and skimmed through scene, getting everything that I really needed to know at 5x the speed.

Because we follow so many characters, we don't get to know them very well. These characters are more about their situation, and how they handle the events as they unfold. Don't expect deep back stories or self-examination. This narrative is very much a forward story, dealing with the crisis at hand while while keeping an eye on the crisis dead ahead.

Like any good war story, the narrative ends at the end of the crisis. This is not a tale of the entire war, it was merely the tale of this particular moment. The war continues, both into the future and into the past.

The only idea that utterly rejected in the novel was the idea that Earth would not control a military. I didn't buy that for one second. No sane civilization let's an army run around in their back yard. Perhaps that argues for Earth being insane? I still don't buy it. Left to themselves, militaries take over and organize, so I didn't buy the fact that they hadn't already done this, as if the events of this novel were some new idea. If armies have a primary purpose, it's logistics, not fighting.

If you're into military SF, there's a big chance that you'll love this novel. If that's not your thing, you'll likely find this book difficult going.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Sexism in Double Jack

I may not have dealt with racism very much in <i>Double Jack</i>, but I do deal with sexism.

By sexism, I mean organized and systematized discrimination based on gender. In this era, a woman's gender almost entirely defined her, especially at the upper levels of society. Women were not just believe to be poor voters, they were scientifically shown to be incapable. Men simple could not let this happen because it was dangerous. In the end, determined women won suffrage, but not without considerable agitation and illegal conduct.

Our lead character, Jack, isn't a terrible person or a woman hater, but he does have the cultural beliefs of his time. To him, it utterly inconceivable that a woman could be a wizard because woman is incapable of proper the proper dispassion required of the discipline. This not an opinion to him, but a fact.

And like all people with fixed beliefs, Jack does his best to maintain them. That's just what people do. When faced with a bevy of capable women, he naturally concludes that each one is an outlier.

Of course, our hero changes his mind as he progresses, but his change of mind changes no one else's mind. He may become enlightened, but the world does not. And even if he does become enlightened on one point, will Jack become enlightened on all others? Can his mind ever be fully freed from all the bindings created by his culture? I don't think so, and that's what make an interesting character.