Saturday, March 27, 2010

Vampires Part I

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I have vampires on the brain. Vampires! Clearly I should see a doctor about that.

Anyway, last night the Abigail and I were reflecting on the preponderance of biblical symbolism in vampire stories, from the White Wolf canons to This is My Blood (which, by the way, looks awesome). In the end, the Abigail gave me a challenge: create an origin for vampires in a modern setting that doesn't involve biblical characters. Here is what I have created:

Vampirism is a taint. It enters the blood through the practice of keeping other humans in bondage through fear and violence. Out-breeding and gaps in the practice that last a generation or two are enough to clear the taint from a line, but if tainted lines hold slaves for generations and breed among themselves, eventually the taint reaches critical mass and explodes into a curse. In life, those who bear the curse of vampirism seem completely normal; after death, however, they rise. For their bloodthirsty ways they are saddled with a hunger for blood. For their practice of dominating others, they are blessed with the need and the power to continue their domination.

Worse, once the taint becomes a curse, innocents can also be made into vampires. Anyone transformed in this way is instinctively obedient to the vampire who made her until that vampire is killed, when she becomes a free agent.

Of course, the largest group of vampires in America are the scions of old Southern families that held Africans in bondage for centuries, though some California farmers who keep undocumented immigrants in near-slavery might be getting close to the change. Older families include a particularly bloodthirsty line that rose in South America and inspired the Aztecs to constant warfare to feed their hunger, several once-noble families in Eastern and Western Europe, and a clan of bloodsuckers in the middle east who claim to be the world's first vampires.

This is a creative prompt, so comment away. What would you do with this concept? Where would you take it? What characters, storylines, and themes jump out and, well...

Bite you?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Love Among the Same Old Powerful Girls

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Sometimes I worry that the Burning Zeppelin Experience is turning into the Burning Podcastle Review Experience. Ah, well; it's something to blog about, and I can't listen to the host asking me to blog about the podcast without being moved eventually. I'm not made of stone, you know. Let me know in comments, though, if you find this trend useful, diverting, or completely boring.

Earlier today, I had the pleasure to listen to Love Among the Talus by Elizabeth Bear. In many ways, it's a brilliant story: extremely well-written and in a very striking voice, with neat characters, excellent pacing, and set in an interesting world. Despite having very little actual sex, it's an extremely sexy story, lush and sensuous and full if simmering tension. However, it's also flawed in two ways that I found particularly worth talking about.

A while ago I wrote about being scooped. My thesis: if you discover that someone else has written something that you want to write, write it anyway. Humanity has been telling stories for so long that it's pretty much a fool's errand to write something totally new. The point isn't to write it, it's to write it well, or to bring a new perspective to an old story. Old is the new new. Or the old new. Or the new old. Or something.

For all that is was generally brilliant, Love Among the Talus managed to be predictable in a bad way. The main character was a powerful girl in trying times, suspended between her treacherous mother, her overlord's son, and the handsome bandit prince who wants to carry her away and give her freedom. She finds her balance by... well, I'll try not spoil anything, but let's just say that a secondary character I thought was interesting dies in a way I found cheap and she doesn't marry anyone. For all the love in the title, there's actually very little love in the story; just a lot of murder.

I'm all for powerful female characters making their own way. It's a neat story, but we've come to a place where there's a way to tell that story that's interesting and a way to tell it that's kind of boring. For me, the powerful girl has developed as much potential for staleness as sword-wielding iron-thewed Conan He-Men.

The second weakness of Love Among the Talus is right there in the name. One of the central characters of Love Among the Talus are the Talus. They're these sort of enormous rocky land-whales who the locals have trained to eat ores and poop metal. While this is really neat (I'm totally going to steal them for my next Exalted game) they don't actually do anything. In my opinion, all the wordcount the author uses to describe the Talus, their beautiful singing, and their rocky hides could probably have been better spent.

But don't shy away. Love Among the Talus is definitely worth listening to, and not just in a train-wreck way. As I wrote above, it's a beautiful, sexy, well-paced little tale, and lots of fun.

Just not perfect.

Like this blog.

Which is why you should comment and tell me if you like podcastle reviews or not.

* * *

Ok, I admit it. That was a pretty weak full-circle.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Santa Monica by Night

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Check this out: some dude in the UK has started a blog for his Vampire: the Requiem game set in Santa Monica. In addition to the hilarious mistakes he's likely to make (Some Dude in the UK, if you're reading this, I mean it with all fondness - I'm sure my games set in England are equally absurd), this blog affords us with a rare opportunity to observe someone else's game from the ground up, watching it grow, shrink, evolve, and overcome challenges. I'm not going to add it to my blogroll - it's a little too focused for that - but I'm certainly going to keep an eye on it.

Sooner or later I'm going to have to stop tiny little linkposts. They're fun and easy, which is sometimes all I can manage, but I have to admit that they're a little boring. Hopefully I'll be able to scare up the time and energy to deliver more original content soon.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A is For Awesome

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This just made my day. Thanks Jon and the Abigail!

A is probably my favorite.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

If You Won't Be You

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I've had a scene living in my head for a while now. The context doesn't matter - the details of the story refuse to be resolved into anything coherent - but the moment remains the same:

One character is a shape shifter with identity issues. Over the course of the story so far, he's lost track of a great deal of who he is. The other is his last friend, and he's dying slowly - wounded, poisoned, sick, or all three - behind enemy lines. The shapeshifter turns to his friend and says "if you won't be you anymore, can I be you?" The dying friend chokes out a final yes, and the shapechanger takes his friend's form, his memories, and a portion of his loves and passions and builds a new self out of them.

I don't know what comes before this moment. Why is the shapechanger blessed and cursed with his power? Why is the friend dying? What is the larger shape of the plot, and how does it relate to the friend's death and the shapeshifter's situation? I also don't know what comes after, but I can imagine the amusing complications, as the shapeshifter deals with his friends family and lovers and no one knows how to deal with anyone else anymore, all against the backdrop of whatever else is going on.

It would be pretty cool... but I don't know what to do with it. The rest of the story - if there is a rest - is buried under some piece of inner detritus.

Well, they say if you love something set it free, so I'm finally cutting this scene loose. Go free into the internet, little idea. If it's meant to be, you'll come back to me some day.

Also, if you folks have any comments I'd love to hear them. Treat this as a creative prompt: what do you think comes before and after?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Room For One More

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Russ Bailey, Livejournal's Emprint, RPGnet's Baileywolf, and White Wolf developer extraordinaire has just started Fantasy Heartbreaker: Games For People Who Care Too Much. The blog will bounce around gaming topics. We can expect house rules for D&D one day, tales from the heady days of Vampire: the Masquerade on another, and snippets of Bailey's own design projects on a third. In a few of the small posts already up, Bailey has opined on such varied topics as TSR's code of ethics, the nature of a core class, and why despite the push for streamlined games and perfect systems, the most "broken" games are the ones that have brought in the most new players over the years, among others.

So give Fantasy Heartbreaker a look, a read, and maybe a follow. I will.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Link Orgy! On Fire! In a Zeppelin!

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On his blog, author Joshua Palmatier (creator of The Skewed Throne and its sequels) has just hosted a post by Juliet McKenna, author of Blood in the Water. Juliet takes advantage of her sudden rise to blogdom (or perhaps it's not a rise - I can't actually get to her website through my school's firewall, so for all I know she's got blogs in her blogs so she can blog while she blogs - for all I know, it's a descent; maybe she podcasts) to talk about girls - and feminism - in fantasy.

I'm really not proud of that last sentence. Not the sentiment - that's ok - it's just a big, ugly sentence. I'd never let myself get away with crap like that in a story.

Anyway, I like girls in fantasy, I like feminism in fantasy, and I like the way Juliet McKenna puts it. So, if you won't take it from me, take it from someone who's actually published and follow the link to Juliet's post.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Evil Mermaids Fuck Yeah!

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The Mermaid's Tea Party by Samantha Henderson, the latest PodCastle was absolutely brilliant. It had everything it needed and more: pirates, mermaids, evil, stories, and most of all, a heaping dose of fuck yeah. I won't say anything else to spoil the wonder except this: listen to this story before it's too late.

I'm not sure what too late would actually look like. Maybe before you forget? Before you die? I'll get back to you on that.

In the meantime, listen.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Plitone Zeppelin Experience

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I just finished The Plitone Revisionist, a science fiction podcast novel by Paul S. Jenkins, and finally - more than a year after the first time I listened to the first episode - I'm ready to review it. This review is a long time coming and, I hope, will interest my audience as much as it interests me.

In the final arithmetic, I give The Plitone Revisionist two out of five possible stars. It definitely had its moments of true and genuine enjoyability, but towards the I end I found myself listening more out of a grudging desire to find out what happened next and a writerly fascination with the author's errors. This was a story in deep need of editing. There's definitely a good novel inside The Plitone Revisionist, but unfortunately it's not the novel I listened to.

Well, we're all writers here. Where did Jenkins go wrong?

I feel that his first mistake was in not having - or at least communicating - a clear idea of what kind of novel he wanted to write. On the one hand, we have a kind of trashy, kind of glitzy, kind of sexy over-the-top cyberpunk space opera. There are villains named Garter Grudnt (pronounced "grunt") and unwitting accomplices named Joley Jordan, and horny pansexual teenage suburbanites just itching to get swept up in the action. In the first scene, the main character is arrested, impounded, and rescued by a man who uses super technology to temporarily mind-control her into his willing sex slave, at least until she heroically (and hillariously escapes).

Now, this is all well and good. I have no problem with glitzy, trashy, over-the-top cyperpunk flavored space opera with silly names and improbable plots. The pulp is strong with this one, and that's great.

The problem is that Jenkins turns around and expects us to take other parts of the story very seriously. The main drive of the plot is a murderous and economically complex conspiracy and the characters deal with some very real emotional fallout of their choices. Unfortunately, it all rings a little hollow.

Now, this kind of thing can be done well. I... um... can't think of any examples off the top of my head (if you can, tell me in comments), but I'm sure it's true. You can start with something glitzy and trashy and over-the-top and take it somewhere the audience doesn't expect, dragging them sideways into a story far more serious than they realized they were signing on for. Jenkins doesn't quite pull it off, though. Every time I was just about to get sucked back into the emotional reality of the story, the reflexively dastardly Garter Grudnt showed up and twirled his (proverbial) mustache and threw me right back into pulpland again.

The second problem is far more serious. The Plitone Revisionist is infected by a bad case of tell-don't-show. The characters spend long scenes contemplating their emotional problems rather than acting on them - or at least talking about them with other people, which is less exciting but still dynamic. As a result, the story seems extremely slow, especially the latter chapters. I make it a point to give every one of my characters someone they can talk to about their feelings so that when I have an emotion that can't be acted on it can at least be talked out.

Would I listen to The Plitone Revisionist again? Certainly not. Would I listen to it the first time if I knew what it was like? Probably not. Do I regret the time I spent listening to it? No, I don't think I do. There were some awesome moments, some thrilling plot twists, and some really neat, sexy scenes, and I definitely don't want the time I spent on it back.

But I'm back in the market for a podcast novel again - preferably something either finished or with a huge archive - and I'm hoping for something better this time.