Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I'm Sorry, Sir, But You're Going to Have to Come With Me...

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That's a violation of Moff's Law, sir.

Moff's Law (as described on the Racialicious blog) was born here, on i09. Moff's Law is the brainchild of Grand Moff Bastard, an io9 poster. You should read the post yourself, but I shall summarize it thusly:

"If you aren't interested in deeply analyzing a piece of art, stay the hell out of conversations analyzing art. Sharing thoughts to the effect of "don't share your thoughts" is stupid, rude, and hypocritical."

I will add that insisting "it's just art, you're over-analyzing it" is a way of shutting down discourse, which I consider the greatest intellectual sin. It's invariably a rank attempt to stop a debate the lawbreaker doesn't think he can win.

I mean, seriously, have you ever heard someone say "I agree that X has some complicated racial themes and maybe isn't as well thought-out as it could be... but why are we bothering to talk about it?"

No.

It's always someone who thinks that things are just fine the way they are, but rather than argue their actual point they're trying to shut down the conversation, which is sneaky, stupid, and doesn't contribute to the discourse.

Well, that's all done. Now that Moff's Law has been passed we can finally prosecute (and persecute!) these people, confiscating their computers and fining them one million internets each.

What do you mean "it doesn't work that way?"

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Importance of Things, Happening

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I just listened to two stories that, in their contrast, neatly illustrated a point about writing that I try hard to remember.

The first was In the Age of Iron and Ashes by Aliette de Bodard (available here as an mp3 and here in print courtesy of Beneath Ceaseless Skies), a complex and cerebral India-themed fantasy about a soldier, a war, the inevitability of death, and what it means to die. The story was beautifully written, the main character and his family evoked with such reality that I couldn't help but feel for him. In fact, In the Age of Iron and Ashes was nearly perfect, except... well, more on that to come.

The second was Biographical Notes to "A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes" By Benjamin Rosenbaum by Benjamin Rosenbaum (no, that's not a typo) (available courtesy of PodCastle). This was also a complex and cerebral piece about causality, narrative, and what it means to be a writer of fantasy. The story was beautifully written, with descriptions that jumped out of my car stereo, beat my brain into submission, and made me like it.

Although both stories were entertaining, Biographical Notes to "A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes" By Benjamin Rosenbaum was in my mind far superior to In the Age of Iron and Ashes for one important reason. To make that reason clear, I'll have to resort to two brief synopses:

Biographical Notes to A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes By Benjamin Rosenbaum tells us the story of Benjamin Rosenbaum, a fantasy writer in a world very little like our own. He is riding a zeppelin back from a writer's conference in a divided America, in the process of being sliced up by the colonial powers of India, China, and others. He begins to work on his newest project, but is diverted by a conversation with travelling prince and his consort. Over the course of this conversation, much of the setting is explicated and the philosophical point of the story is introduced.

But before Benjamin can finish his conversation, he is interrupted by an assassin, who tries to kill his conversation partner and possibly-soon-to-be-patron. Benjamin leaps into action, hoping to save the prince's life, and soon finds himself swinging from a safety cable far above the surface of the Great Lakes, leaping from airship to airship, defending his life to a pirate captain, and fleeing to - and then from - an enormous floating war-city covered in moving statues of Hindu gods. All the while, Benjamin contemplates the causes of his deepening predicament, making the story's philosophical and metaphysical points against a backdrop of action.

In the Age of Iron and Ashes opens promisingly enough with the main character, a soldier named Yudhyana capturing an escaped slave. The young woman later turns out to be descended from a line that once held divine blood. Yudhyana's superiors in his city's hierarchy hope that by forcing her to dance, divine wrath can be brought down on the army that comes to besiege the city, saving them all.

Yudhyana visits the slave in prison, contemplating death. He watches her dance, contemplating death. He watches her die, contemplating (you guessed it) death. Finally, he goes home dwelling on the bitter knowledge that nothing can save his family. He wakes up in the night to the shouts that tell him that he invaders have breeched the wall, murders his wife and children to save them the pain indignity of rape and slow deaths, and then goes forth to die himself, contemplating rebirth.

While Yudhyana's progression from near despair through real despair and finally to a kind of hope was interesting, In the Age of Iron and Ashes was hindered by the fact that nothing really happened. A girl who had no real hope of escape was captured, a city that had no hope of survival was destroyed, and a man watched it all happen while mostly thinking about death. There were no surprises here.

On the other hand, Biographical Notes to A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes By Benjamin Rosenbaum balanced a deeply personal and philosophical story with nonstop action. Things were always happening in Biographical Notes to A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes By Benjamin Rosenbaum. The narrator thought about his life, certainly, but he also leaped from airship to airship, had tense conversations with fellow prisoners, and fought to survive.

In Biographical Notes to A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes By Benjamin Rosenbaum I was riveted by what was happening. In In the Age of Iron and Ashes I held on in hope that something would happen soon and eventually left disappointed.

So what's the point? Make sure something is happening! A true burning zeppelin experience is an emotionally significant moment that happens against the backdrop of action. In my opinion - and in my work - neither can exist satisfyingly without the other.

But do listen to both stories - they're both quite good.

Watch out for airship pirates. And if they catch you, well, there's always your next life.

* * *

  • Where else have you encountered another story that expressed great characterization and great craft but failed to have things actually happen?
  • Where else have you encountered stories that mixed action and emotion (or contemplation) well?
  • Does anyone else think after listening to Biographical Notes to A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes By Benjamin Rosenbaum that he ended up in the wrong world?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The 7th Grade Biomagic Standards...

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Area really hard for kids. I think the standards are poorly designed and the 6th grade standards don't prepare them well. It's a real shame and makes my life difficult.

More specifically, if you're interested in an interesting blog post about magic and science and their parallel development, roll on over to inkbrush76's blog. Here's the post in specific. I think he's missed some important points (the comment by electricpaladin is mine), but the post is still worth reading and contemplating.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Best of All Time

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I really own a lot of gaming books. You know one of those big blond Ikea bookshelves? I have one that's three quarters full of gaming books. The Abigail and I have old favorites like Call of Cthulhu, new offerings like Little Fears: Nightmare Edition, stuff as mainstream as the entire White Wolf canon and stuff as indie as Dogs in the Vineyard. Truly, we are an eclectic pair.

Well, not that eclectic. Actually, we're pretty much your classic filthy narrativists.

On a lark, I decided to decide which book in my collection is the best and then opine to you, the masses, my selection. On further reflection, however, I made a correction: I can't possibly pick just one good book. Ion. Instead, I've decided on five categories of bestness. Feel free to bask in my wit below.

* * *

Category One: Best Read


Beyond a doubt, Weapons of the Gods by Eos Press is the most fun book in my collection. I won't say it's necessarily the best game - though it's quite good - and I won't say that it's the most fun to play, because I've never actually plated it. I will, however, say that it's the only gaming book I own that I'll sometimes pick up and read, cover to cover, for fun.

Or, rather, I used to, before I became a full time teacher and "copious free time" became a thing of the past.

The trick is in the ficklets. The setting of Weapons of the Gods is explicated entirely in tiny stories scattered here and there throughout the book. Except for the core mechanics and the setting basics, every game concept - from set pieces to advanced rules - is prefaced with a tiny story that illustrates that game concept in action. Weapons of the Gods' microfiction makes the book huge fun to read. I wish more game designers used this format, because it's neat.

* * *

Category Two: Best Adds


By "best adds" I mean "adds the most to the game," and in for that category, I will dust off and then select my ancient copy of Dreams and Nightmares, a sourcebook for White Wolf's Changeling: the Dreaming. In Changeling, your characters perceive a world of dreams and fantasies, chimerical reality, laid alongside the real world. Deeper into chimerical reality, you encounter a world of dreams that doesn't directly map to the fields we know. Dreams and Nightmares is a partial travelogue of that world.

The book includes rules for how the abundant glamour (magical energy that powers faeries) of the Deep Dreaming makes changelings more powerful, and also more problematic. It has a huge variety of great places and great people for characters to run into, run away from, learn from, steal from, and, of course, fight.

I don't know exactly how to describe how beautiful this book is. I don't know that I can. Instead, I'm going to provide my favorite quote, a paragraph in the description of places called the snail graveyards, where the oldest and wisest snails go to die:

"Each of the graveyards is guarded by one of the brothers called the Boys with Nautilus Hearts. These entities are beautiful adolescent males, pale in coloring, with sad eyes. Each is crippled in some way: one is blind, another is asthmatic, a third is lame, and so on. All share a communion with snails and other shelled creatures and are polite but inscrutable. They are also expert in secret ways of waging war in the name of innocence."
- Dreams and Nightmares, p84

There's so much possibility here! I want to meet one of the Boys with Nautilus Hearts. I want to learn the secret ways of waging war in the name of innocence. I want to go to a snail graveyard. This is Dreams and Nightmares in a snail shell: all the best of Changeling: the Dreaming in its sad, beautiful, and dreamlike glory.

Damnit, every time I read this book I want to play Changeling. Somebody run me Changeling.

* * *

Category Three: Best Explication


Reign is a new game in my collection, and I'm extremely fond of it. Because I've never run or played it, I can't speak to the value of the system. I can say that the setting is extremely neat, however (epic political fantasy set on two continents that look like people and may be the bodies of dead and/or sleeping gods).

More to the point, author Greg Stolze abandons the traditional layout of RPG books. Instead of several dry chapters on rules followed by several more juicy chapters on setting, Stolze alternates rules concepts and set pieces, making Reign another fun read (though not as fun as Weapons of the Gods).

Most to the point, Reign does an extremely good job of communicating what the game is about in both the system and the setting chapters. The writing is just plain good. Stolze manages to be very clear about what his game means and how to play and run it well.

* * *

Category Four: Best Book, Overall


Hunter: the Vigil is a gorgeous game. In the words of the Abigail "Hunter is incredibly flexible and incredibly stand-alone. It is the game that has the most going on in the most ways." I'd like to add that Hunter integrates all these things with a single, powerful theme: you are the candle in the darkness, you are the first and last line against the things in the dark... and the only way to make yourself stronger for the fight is to give up a little of what makes you human - a little of what makes you different from them. Hunter is a twenty games wrapped up in one, and the writers somehow make it work.

Incidentally, the runner-up for this category was...


The only reason Promethean: the Created didn't win is that unlike Hunter, the real greatness of Promethean emerges in the supplements, and this post is about the best book, not the best line. Now, you can play Promethean with just the core, and it looks like it would work really well. With Hunter, though, the beauty of the game is right there in one book, thus making it a shoe-in for this category.

* * *

Category Five: My Favorite


Mage: the Ascension is my favorite game, ever.

In some ways, it was the first game to ever really catch me. Oh, sure. D&D was great (I could play a paladin!), and Vampire had some cool (vampires!), but in Mage... in Mage, you can play anything. As a little geek, I loved how research-intensive Mage could be. Anyone could be a fireball slingin' Hermetic, but I can do research into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, read up on Aliester Crowley, and play a Hermetic like you wouldn't believe. That sentiment pretty clearly sums of the best of Mage for me. The game is incredibly dense, full of awesome ideas and beautiful themes.

Oh, I'll grant that Mage: the Ascension is a little scattered... ok, a lot scattered. The concept's new incarnation, Mage: the Awakening, is almost certainly a better game in almost every respect. For a some values of Mage, even Unknown Armies is far superior. However, Ascension will always have a special place in my heart, and on my shelf.

* * *

I'm glad you enjoyed my endless pontification on the subject of books I own. Stay tuned for reflections on the early episodes of Lost, a review of the podcast novel I'm listening to (as soon as I know, finish it), and perhaps more steampunk. You never know where the burning zeppelin will fly next!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Histoires de Fantôme pour des Fantômes

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I would like to direct your collective attention to The Spirit of Nationalism by Mike Bennett, a wonderfully classic ghost story currently up on everyone's favorite horror podast, Pseudopod. The Spirit of Nationalism is great. It hits all the high points of a ghost story, but it's too brilliantly written, too perfectly paced to be predictable. That is, the tale is what it is - a ghost story - and the strength lies in how it's done, not in what's done, so that it doesn't matter if you know what's coming. You'll be too busy enjoying each perfectly disconcerting word to care.

I'm also really impressed with the latest Podcastle, but I really want to actually write about that one, so I'm going to refrain from saying more until I'm less exhausted and more inspired.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Blogroll Call!

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I've been meaning to do this for some time. All good things come to an end, and it's time to update the old Blogroll. The old must be cast aside, the new must be encouraged, and creepy pictures of skulls that are also chicks must be placed on my blog.

Image via Wikipedia

OFF

Wormwood: I'm sorry, but I lost all interest when they killed [REMOVED TO PREVENT SPOILERS] and [REMOVED TO PREVENT SPOILERS]. Sure way to get me to leave a fiction? Kill my two favorite characters - the two best characters - as part of a beta plot. I suppose I'm being slightly unfair; I also left because the story was gradually becoming less urban fantasy/horror and more modern fantasy, which I though the premise (and the writers) carried off with a lot less grace. The show also still wins points for the gay supernatural investigators, even if they did name them Chip and Dale (see yesterday's post for why that was a bad idea). I do recommend the archives to anyone with some time to kill, just ditch like I did, when the magic tattoos arrive.

Master Plan: The podcast might, technically, still exist, but author Ryan Macklin has promised that it will end, and the last update was a quarter ago. If a new episode materializes, I will likely re-add. Maybe.

ON

The Guild of the Cowry Catchers: I've already told you why this ongoing podcast novel is filled to the brim with weapons-grade awesome. Click now, because this link will leave my blogroll when the novel ends!

The Metamor City Podcast: Just a little sexy (ok, sometimes a lot sexy), sometimes kind of kinky, usually pretty weird, and always enormously fun. You can expect more of a review in the fullness of time. Also, the primary author is a fantasy writing science teacher in Oakland... just like me!

A Character for Every Game I Own: This blog started as a place or the author to post his

Dice for various games, especially for rolepla...Image via Wikipedia

contributions to one of the world's sillier projects: ritually making a character for every RPG one owns (a project I, myself, have undertaken, at my own blog, which I sadly can't link to because since becoming a teacher I've friend-locked it). It has since expanded and is now full of all sorts of great rpg stuffs.

The Githyanki Diaspora: The Sons of Kryos may be temporarily long gone, but Judd (I really hope I got that right) of the Sons has his own blog, and it's full of neat.

That's all for now. Be sure to stay tuned for more mad ideas from the Burning Zeppelin.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Kicking Ass and Taking on... Names

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I'm fairly fond of the title for this post. The runner-up was Saltheart Foamfollower and Me, though, and I'm still not sure I chose right. Anyway, onwards.

Both of my evening plans fell through - one due to budget cuts, the other due to some kind of theatrical weirdness on my friend Alan's part - so I'm sitting at school and grading exit slips. My school has a wireless connection. Blogger isn't blocked by the school's firewall. It's off to the races with the Burning Zeppelin Experience, because I'm really not a very good teacher yet and grading exit slips without the occasional distraction is just depressing.

What's that, you say? Why don't I just go home and blog from there? That, my friend, would require a great deal more efficiency than this zeppelin burner has to his name (as I'm sure you've noticed), so a post from school is what you get today.

The question is, what am I going to write about?

I'm going to write about names.

A few years ago, I read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson. For the first book and a half of the series, I had no idea that these books were going to become one of the most intensely formative reads of my writing life. For me, there's a lot to love in this deeply controversial series, but what I want to focus on is that last sentence: "I had no idea..."

At first, the books turned me off. The biggest thing wasn't that the main character [REMOVED TO PREVENT SPOILERS] or even when he [ALSO REMOVED TO PREVENT SPOILERS]. Actually, what rubbed me the wrong way were the names. In the first book, the main character, Thomas Covenant, is transported to the Land, a strange fantasy world that contains such eccentric characters as...

Drool Rockworm.

Saltheart Foamfollower.

Lord Foul.

That last one is the series' main villain, also called by such subtle sobriquets as "Fangthane the Render." I'm going to pull that last one out for you: Fangthane the Render. Fang. Thane. the Render. Tribal lord of nasty sharp teeth, the tearer into little bits. That's not the least of it, of course. There are creatures called Viles, monsters called Ravers, and weirdos called the Elohim.

I think you can see why I was unimpressed. These names are frankly... well... goobery. They scream "this is an uncomplicated black and white fantasy about manly men (or possibly manly women), big swords, and bigger explosions."

My reaction here sums up the first reason names are important: names create expectations, and expectations guide experience. If you give your characters goobery fantasy names, your reader is going to react to them as though they are goobery fantasy characters. The same goes for pulpy space opera and serious literary fiction. Of course, some names create stronger expectations than others. If you call a character Ralph in a novel set in New York in 1987, people still don't know what to expect. The story could go any number of ways: is it a mystery, a dark urban fantasy, or a romance? No one knows! If he's Ralph the Barbarian and he hails from Bigswordia, now, everyone knows you're going for a fantasy pastiche.

But before you get too sold on the idea of giving every character the name she clearly deserves, let me tell you the rest of the story of Saltheart Foamfollower and me.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are the opposite of goobery. They are a dark, serious, and philosophical series of novels about love, death, evil, and innocence. As I read, I came to realize that the names weren't goobery or ill-chosen, they were selected with extreme care. You see, one of the points of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is innocence. The Land is innocent. Thomas Covenant was innocent, and to him - and more importantly, to us and to me - its names, societies, and conventions seem ridiculous. As I came to realize what a beautiful place the Land was, I started to feel bad that I couldn't just revel in the beautiful innocence of those ridiculous names... and then I understood how Thomas Covenant felt. I felt what Thomas Covenant felt, and that was brilliant.

So, as is true of most great truths of writing, the inverse is also true. Sometimes you need to give something the least likely name you can imagine... and reap the benefits.

For example, right now I'd give myself the ironic name "Productivitor." I'd better get back to grading and leave you all to contemplate my brilliance. See you later, Lord Ralph.