Monday, December 17, 2012

Burning Hobbit Experience

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Getting ready to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has been an unexpected rollercoaster for me. My emotions have ranged from hope and excitement when the movie was first announced, to joy and delight at the initial trailers and sneak peeks, to fear and dismay when they announced that they were stretching the movie to two, and then three movies, to disgust and despair when I learned about exactly how they were padding the movie to triple ticket sales, and finally back to a tentative hope when reviews from friends and Internet acquaintances showed that it wasn't as bad as it was feared, and might actually good.

I'll be straight with you here: my feeling swelled to glory and delight with the opening scenes... and quickly descended into a solid, abiding disappointment - the kind where there aren't enough good things to talk about without dipping into things that were "ok" or "could have been worse."

Will I see the next two movies? Certainly, and not just because it's The Hobbit. Will I love them in the same way that I loved the Lord of the Rings films? Is The Hobbit film a similarly brilliant testament to a sub-culture's love of a seminal text? No on both counts. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is mediocre at best, actively bat at times, and contains only a few gems of true greatness.

Let's break it down.

The Good

The first thing I liked about this is a weird one, because I'm also going to criticize it: the much-storied frame rate. 48 frames per second created a weirdly crisp image. Overall, however, I liked it. It was sharp, dynamic, and realistic. I'm looking forward to seeing more movies filmed and presented in this way.

The phrase, however - "looking forward" - is key. I feel like the director didn't quite know what to do with this new technology. The special effects weren't up to the task of the greater frame-rate, and looked unrealistic and pasted on. The customs and prosthetics that made the orcs orcs and the wargs wargs made them look like muppets. Even some basic movie things, like lighting and colors, weren't quite right.

But I'm patient. These things take time. I'd rather see movie-makers attempt to move into the world of this new and crisper technology than sit back and hang out in the world of the old, tired technology, just because they're afraid to be the first. I don't mind that they started with The Hobbit - in fact, I'm honored. Just... get better at this, ok? I felt like I was watching a moderate-budget BBC historical rather than an epic tale of, well... The Hobbit.

Also despite those problems, some of the visuals were striking. The first glimpse of Rivendell, for example, was as beautiful as it always was. The shots of Erebor, for example, and the way they contrasted with the probably-it-has-a-name-but-I-can't-be-bothered-to-find-it-out goblin city, were pure gold.

I also feel like the creators did a good job of capturing the spirit of The Hobbit. Oh, sure, there were problems - and you'll hear about them in good time - but their hearts were clearly in the right place. This was still the Middle Earth we all know and love, just a little brighter, gentler, and sillier. In other words, this was Middle Earth at the end of the long peace that preceded the War of the Ring.

Finally, there were the changes I liked. I know this is a sore topic among my fellow nerds, but I have long subscribed to the belief that some things need to change when a book becomes a movie and when an old work (guys, The Hobbit is 75 freaking years old) becomes new.

I liked that the dwarves developed distinct personalities and styles - even if it meant that Fili, Kili, and Thorin became man-candy. Let's face it, The Hobbit had four characters: Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and Bob the Dwarf Blob. While that might have flown in the 30s, it doesn't work with modern audiences and isn't actually good writing. Giving the dwarves distinct styles, writing them some actual dialogue that actually distinguishes them, is all to the good.

I also liked some of the Silmarillion-esque digressions. The initial digression I could have lived without - the 1977 animated version did just as well in a third of the time by turning the dwarf song into a brief flashback - but I rather enjoyed the scenes that showed Gandalf's maneuvering and manipulation behind the scenes. Sure, the stuff about Radagast was kind of odd, and I'm not sure why they decided that they had to make the Necromancer (AKA Sauron in a funny hat) a modern occurrence, rather than something Gandalf had dealt with already... but all in all, it was a fun digression and it added to the sense of building tension, that this fantasy romp was more than it seems.

Because as we all know, it is.

Finally, I can't leave without talking about the songs. Tolkein's songs are another controversial point. Some of us can't live with 'em, some of us can't live without 'em. I'm one of the latter. I still sing the songs from the '77 Hobbit when I'm bored. I enjoyed this movie's rendition of That's What Bilbo Baggins Hates and Under the Misty Mountains Cold. I'm glad the creators of this movie chose to include them, and feel that they added a lot to the atmosphere.

The Meh

What could I have taken or left? Where's the "meh?"

First of all, as I mentioned previously, I wasn't a fan of Dwarven History 101 with Professor Mithrandir. Perhaps it really was too much. Perhaps it's just because I've seen that twenty minutes of movie handled with a five minute monologue (thank you, '77 Hobbit). Either way, I thought it was, frankly, sloppy.

Secondly, I just wasn't impressed with the violence of the movie. It didn't break my heart, either, but the fact is that they managed to cram eleven fight scenes into the first movie alone. Eleven! The Hobbit is supposed to be a story about how "if more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world." Frankly, The Lord of the Rings is about the same thing, but at least that story is intended to be story of the heroism of folksy regular Joes against a backdrop of the horrors of war. The Hobbit was not as bloody as The Lord of the Rings for a reason... a reason that the creators of this movie seem to have forgotten.

Ultimately, however, I wasn't surprised. Just a little sad that we live in a world where gore and glory is so important. "If more of us valued food and cheer and song" indeed.

Finally, there were moments that just seemed mailed in. The Goblin King is one example. He didn't sound like a goblin or move like a goblin. He spoke clearly and moved like the final boss of the Gobling City level of the inevitable video game. He was a joke, a delivery engine for one-liners, and a midboss, and it was a missed opportunity. Similarly, Azog (pardon me - Azog the Defiler) was insufficiently nuanced to be a three-dimensional villain and insufficiently evocative to be a force of nature villain.

The Bad

I know I try to be the kind of nerd who appreciates the need for change, but there's one - and only one - thing that just pissed me off, and it's a change, and I think I can make an argument for it.

Azog the motherfucking Defiler.

Seriously, was that really necessary?

The Hobbit already has a personified villain. It has Smaug. It already has plenty of midbosses, from the Great Goblin to the giant spiders of Mirkwood and the King of the Wood Elves. It has metaphorical villains in the suspicion and selfishness of the Dwarves, the clannishness and cowardice of the Hobbits, and, in the background, the fears of the Elves and the weakness of Men. The Hobbit didn't need Azog or rather, it shouldn't have needed him. Honestly, he was a cheap trick, included as a sloppy patch for the inertia the project lost by being between one and two movies too long.

The Last Math

In the final arithmetic (see what I did there?), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was mediocre. In this effort, Peter Jackson's reach exceeded his grasp, and the studio's mercantilism exceeded his spirit. This movie may have been a labor of love, but not the kind of love that really understands and cherishes. I don't doubt that Jackson loves The Hobbit, but he he doesn't understand it. He wants to take The Hobbit out on a date, but doesn't get what The Hobbit really wants. He dragged The Hobbit out to see a movie and paint the town red, but The Hobbit really just wanted to cuddle in front of the fire, maybe watch a rom-com on Netflix.

What we have here isn't really The Hobbit. It's the Star Wars prequel. It's The Lord of the Rings: Part 0. It isn't bad, but it isn't good. It was fun, but I've basically already forgotten it.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The War Is Not Over

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Google Drive.

Technocracy.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a problem.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Check It Out!

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This is not my first painted mini, but it is the first painted mini I've had the guts to post to this blog. I hope you enjoy him. Painting him was a blast and a challenge. This was my first time painting in a darker skin tone (I've done pale humans, red and blue lizards, and grey-skinned abominations, but no dark skinned humans) - a process that (unsurprisingly) doesn't get as much attention or support in gaming circles. Also, he's an Infinity model, and as I've been known to say, these models are incredibly detailed and not for the faint of brush.

I am eager to hear your amazed praise and commentary.


Speech bubbles courtesy of Speechable, which is a truly hilarious website. I don't think it's the one the Abigail used to send me those amazing encouraging messages last summer, but it is similar.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Daughter of Smoke and Zeppelins

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I guess the universe wanted to let me know that I was making the right choice. Within two days of deciding to drop this drabble-a-day business, I had a great idea for a new short story, and I was able to start it last night while the quiches were in the oven (long story - don't ask). I won't say anything else until the story is written, but for now suffice it to say that some day soon we will all be giving thanks to the God of Impossible Things...

In any case, that's not what I actually wanted to post about today. Today, I wanted to write a long-awaited (but oddly timely) review of a book I enjoyed hugely: Daughter of Smoke & Bone, by Laini Taylor. Daughter of Smoke & Bone will always have a special place in my heart as the first book I ever listened to as an audio book (available through Audible). The reading is brilliant in every possible way, and it's part of what sent me down the path of audiobooks.

Audiobooks are not what I'm hear to talk about, however. I'm here to talk about Karou.

Karou is an art student in Prague. Her hair grows in blue (not rainbows, but it'll do). Unbeknownst to her friends - including the Fierce and Tiny Zusana - Karou was raised by a very strange family of chimerical humanoids led by a bull-headed dragon-bodied wish-merchant named Brimstone. Karou is a daughter of three worlds: the human world that her body makes her a part of, the tiny world of her family and Brimstone's shop where he buys teeth and sells wishes, and a third, mysterious world - the world beyond the other door in Brimstone's shop - a world she has never visited, but feels drawn to nonetheless. Karou's desire to explore this other world - and that world's troubles, pursuing her - will draw her into... well, an adventure. There are also star-crossed romances, buried secrets, and a great many things that are not what they seem.

What I love most about Daughter of Smoke & Bone was the skillful way Taylor builds her story. This is an incredibly tight novel - barely a wasted letter, let alone a word - with a mystery that builds from the first page to an inevitable, almost Grecian tragedy. By the time the mystery breaks, it may not be a surprise to you - I guessed it, and so did the Abigail - but that's not the point. The point is the elegance of the structure, the beautiful and terrible shape of the doom that comes to Karou and... ah, but that would be telling.

Taylor creates some truly enchanting characters. I have already mentioned Karou the Blue-Haired and Zusana that Fierce and Tiny. There are others as well, all of them charming and odd, many of them lovable, and all of them very engaging. Taylor's talent for characterization also serves to aid the shape of her tragedy, with characters who you really can imagine falling in love and hate, keeping secrets, in just the wrong way.

Finally, the places. Ah, the places...

You should know - I spent four months in Prague when I was a high school student, thanks to the now-defunct Lauder Exchange Program. Prague sank its sooty tentacles deep into my soul, and even now when I imagine a city of Eastern European quirkiness, twisted streets and statuary, beautiful and bloody history strewn about like sea glass on a beach, where modern net-savvy kids tryst beneath the horse's tail1 and old men still sit in coffee houses and drink a truly epic amount of beer. I never went to Poison Kitchen (I don't think it's real, unfortunately), but I did once go to a nightclub built over a branch of the Vltava River so that the water rushed beneath us, visible through glass floors. And I once got drunk on awful Czech wine in a medieval basement with enormous kegs set into the wall, drunk enough that I sang Czech songs I didn't understand...

I went and had a Prague-gasm all over my blog, didn't I?

Well, then. I think you understand part of why I enjoyed the book so much. Taylor did a very good job of evoking Prague.

In any case, this is a book that you can't afford to miss, especially with the second book rumored to be appearing shortly (and apparently a movie deal, according to the book's Wikipedia page). I advise you to pick it up and read it as soon as possible.

Otherwise, what happens next... might not end well.

• • •

1. I looked all over the internet for a link to this, but I don't think there is one. Under communism, the Czechs would say "see you under the horse's tail," when they intended to meet each other in secret to discuss counter-revolutionary action. "Under the horse's tail" referred to Saint Wenceslas Square, where the rebels would frequently meet.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Blog Free Drabble

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After a lot of deliberation, I've decided to stop writing drabbles on a daily basis for this blog.

There are three main reasons for this decision.

Firstly, drabbles bore the shit out of me. After writing quite a few - not as many as Nathan, but plenty - I can now say with confidence that I don't see the merit in them, at least for me. Drabbles have a very distinct meter that they all share, and it's getting repetitive. I don't even enjoy reading or listening to drabbles anymore.

Secondly, I am no longer convinced that drabbles have much to teach me. I'm already reasonably good at what I call "evocation" - implying the existence of a larger world or story in several very small brush strokes. I certainly know all the tricks of shaving off a word or two - I think every writer does, after a point. Drabbles can sell, though they don't sell for much, and they can be a fun way to get the dead leaves and squirrel skeletons out of the writing gutters, and I'm glad that I spent some time exploring the medium and expanding my repertoire. However, I don't think I can learn much more from them.

Finally... let me elucidate this point with a story. Recently, the ever-prescient Abigail Hilton wrote, in a comment to one of my posts about writing drabbles:

I kinda wish you'd write a novel instead of drabbles.

My response was "you and me both, sister."

That got me thinking. I haven't had a lot of time to work on my novel, or my other novel, or the short story I'm writing, or the other short story I'm writing, or any of the five short stories that I've gotten feedback on and need edits and rewrites. Why? Because I spend all of my (highly limited) writing time on these God-damned boring-ass drabbles!

So, I have come to a crossroads. Will I continue to write in a form that bores me, or will I break my oath and continue to search for a way to blog and write that inspires me?

Screw drabbles, man. I'm moving on.

I'm going to keep up the blogging momentum that I've developed here, so watch this space for more game material, reviews, links, and, yes, drabbles. I'm also going to keep up the writing momentum that this project has produced, though you will no longer see the results posted here every single (God-damned) day.

That's all for now. The future is bright and full of new and better ways to make stories happen. Till next time.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

I Thought He'd Live Forever

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I saw Ray Bradbury speak once, you know.

I was twelve years old. It was at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan - where I also took Tai Kwon Do lessons - walking distance from my school. Bradbury was... ancient isn't quite the right word, though he seemed that way to my adolescent self. Bradbury was venerable. Wise. One. Something he said really summed up the sense of peace and acceptance that he carried like an aura: "Because I am afraid that I won't be able to read once I have died, I am rereading all of my favorite books so I can carry them with me." This is why although I am sad to live in a world without Ray Bradbury, I am certain that he is doing just fine.

The second thing he said during that talk has really stuck with me is actually something he didn't say. Bradbury was the first author who didn't feed me that old BS about how writing is such a terrible profession, and if you can find it in yourself to do something else, you should. He had war stories to tell - stories of slaving away at his typewriter on the kitchen counter while his children tried to get his attention, knowing that if daddy came out to play there wouldn't be anything for dinner next week - but he never presented writing as anything other than a profession, a career, and a choice.

The works of Ray Bradbury have meant a lot to me over the years.

Personally, I think I am still living in Bradbury's definition of good and evil:

"Sometimes the man who looks happiest in town, with the biggest smile, is the one carrying the biggest load of sin. There are smiles and smiles; learn to tell the dark variety from the light. The seal-barker, the laugh-shouter, half the time he's covering up. He's had his fun and he's guilty. And men do love sin, Will, oh how they love it, never doubt, in all shapes, sizes, colors, and smells... On the other hand, that unhappy, pale, put-upon man walking by, who looks all guilt and sin, why, often that's your good man with a capital G, Will. For being good is a fearful occupation; men strain at it and sometimes break in two."

And good men? They're always concerned. Always careful. Always trying to do their best. This idea spoke to me, and I think it always will.

Professionally - creatively - Bradbury has had a greater impact on me than I can say. I learned about goodness from Something Wicked This Way Comes. I learned about sacrifice from The Halloween Tree. Nothing I have ever read about fear and madness has taught me more than The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl. I have never read anything sadder than The Fog Horn or There Will Come Soft Rains, or anything sharper-eyed than Fahrenheit 451 or All Summer in a Day. The Sound of Thunder will always send cold fingers up my spine, and no time travel story I've ever read has measured up to it. Not one.

I don't think my work will ever have Bradbury's poetry. I'm not that kind of writer. I like plots and settings too much, and I'm apt to hide my allegories behind more layers of gauze and trickery. But sometimes, in the moments when I stretch, I think I recall a little of how it feels to read Bradbury.

I'll miss him, but probably I shouldn't. After all, Bradbury has left so much of himself behind.

I should go soon. There are a few works of Bradbury's I haven't gotten to, yet. As I don't know if I'll be able to read once I'm dead, I should hop to it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Retractions and Reconsiderations

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In my last post I bitched and moaned about The Moth and why I'm giving up on their podcast. Basically, it was this: for a podcast that claims to be about stories - and anyone can tell a story - most of their story-tellers are the famous, soon-to-be-famous, or wanna-be-famous, all with something to sell, and by contrast, few of their stories are from anyone else. It rubs me the wrong way and is starting to annoy me.

In conversation with the Abigail last night, however, something was made clearer to me: what I'm listening to is the podcast, not the entirety of The Moth. And, for that matter, the podcast is made with promoting the podcast in mind. Maybe The Moth thinks that most people are more interested in hearing the stories of media figures with things to sell. Maybe they're not even wrong. As for what actually goes on at a Moth show... I have no idea. I've never been.

So, I retract everything I said about The Moth itself being a sinisterly elitist organization. All I know is the Podcast. And while the Podcast has started to bore and annoy me a bit, there's only the flimsiest reason to expect that The actual Moth would do the same.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Moth-Eaten, Slightly Elitist

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The Moth is starting to annoy me.

For those of you not in the know, the Moth is a combination open mic, traveling community theatre, and podcast. It is a place where people tell interesting stories from their lives. Some of them are depressing, some of them are uplifting, and some of them are hilarious. Recently, however, I've the Moth has started to bother me. My enjoyment wanes with every listen. I think the time draws nigh that I will drop if from my blogroll and iPod.

Here's the thing: the Moth is secretly incredibly elitist.

Most Moth stories start the same, with some pithy story of life in the sticks, dealing with a workaday job. Moth storytellers talk about being flight attendants and drug addicts, hikers on ordinary hikes. Weird and wonderful and horrible things happen to them, and then comes the conclusion... where smooth-voiced Dan Kennedy (author of Rock On, an office power ballad, learn more at www.rockonthebook.com... sorry, I've heard that outro way too often) explains that so-and-so the all-night diner waitress is actually a film-making comedian with a book coming out in September.

Almost everyone on the Moth is secretly someone, telling the story of how once, a long, long time ago they used to be no one.

And that's not counting everyone who tells stories of working in fashion or publishing or journalism, straight up and from the beginning. I don't mind them as much. Honestly, I don't mind the stories of people who used to be nobody, either, but their stories cast the flaws in the Moth into sharper relief. As I wrote above, practically everyone on the Moth is a Someone - a rising star of some scene or another - with some brand new media product to shill. No one is nobody. No one is a waitress who's still a waitress, a flight attendant whose still a flight attendant, a drug dealer who's now doing his best to be a good dad.

That's not true.

Once in a while - once every few months or so - the Moth will deign to allow once of the participants of their community storytelling classes to tell a story on the stage. These are the people who are just people, without anything to sell, trying to get by and live their lives.

The thing that bugs me is that this situation - rising media starts telling stories and selling their newest creations is just fine - is in the context of an organization that claims... well, I'll let the Moth tell you what it is:

The Moth is an acclaimed not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. It is a celebration of both the raconteur, who breathes fire into true tales of ordinary life, and the storytelling novice, who has lived through something extraordinary and yearns to share it. At the center of each performance is, of course, the story – and The Moth’s directors work with each storyteller to find, shape and present it.

From the Moth's About page.

You see, nowhere does it say that this is a place where media authors, comedians, TV personalities, and politicians will tell their stories. This is supposed to be a place where people - and by that, I assumed they meant all kinds of people - tell their stories.

So, ultimately, the dishonesty and quiet elitism is starting to annoy me. And the condescension of "special story hour with the little people" is starting to anger me. And the repetitive themes of rising stars telling the tales of their inglory days in the trenches are starting to bore me.

In other words, the Moth is on its way out for me. Where is it for you?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Burning Contest Experience

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So, it's started to bug me that I have no idea how popular this blog actually is. I mean, I know the Abigail reads it, even though she doesn't like Drabbles much. I know that Kindli reads it, because she comments. According to Blogger, I have 14 followers - according to Blogger's Google-tracking features, I have probably about 20 more.

But I'd like to know.

More importantly, I'd like to foster more of a sense of community and conversation at this blog. This is the Internet, after all. I don't want to shout into the ether - I want you to shout back!

In order to achieve this, I have an idea. A contest! Unfortunately, I can't offer you fabulous prizes - because unlike the miniatures wargaming blogs I'm stealing this from, I don't have any - but I can offer you a one to two hundred word story, written to your specifications.

What do you need to do to win? You need to comment on this post, and... recommend this blog to one friend. The first will be apparent here, and for the second I'll take you at your word. After a suitable period of time - I'm thinking a week - I'll randomly select a winner and get your specifications. Then I'll provide the story.

This should be fun... or at the very least, educational.

Friday, June 1, 2012

This Is the Place

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Another story inspired by a photo today.




Yet again: I claim no ownership of this photo. I'm a very bad man for posting it. If it's yours, let me know, and I'll take it down.


In any case... I don't know what it is about necromancer protagonists that appeals to me. Is it the conquest of something I have always feared? Categorically magic turned to (potentially) noble ends? Or do I just think protagonists look good in black?


Either way, with this story I finally close the gap. We are at quits... at least until tomorrow.

This Is the Place
By Mark L. S. Stone

“We shouldn’t be here,” Sasha said, pulling his puffy coat tighter around his torso. It made him look like a nervous, punked-out version of the Michelin Man.

Sasha had a talent for pointing out the obvious.

I listened to the ravens circling overhead. Their croaking song was resolving into sense.

“We’re almost there,” I said, and broke into a jog.

“Are you listening to me?” Sasha panted after me. “Charlie…”

“This is the place.”

“People died here,” Sasha complained.

I opened my bag and removed my instruments: black candle, curved knife, jawbone.

“Yes, Sasha,” I snapped. “That’s the fucking point.”

The Forge

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The Forge
By Mark L. S. Stone

She worked until she sweated. She worked until blisters rose, burst, and fell. She worked until the shock of cold night air was alien besides the heat of the forge.

“Is it completed?” her master asked.

She nodded.

“Show it to me.”

It was beautiful – her finest so far. He grunted, and cast it to the ground.

She cried out.

He shook his head and led her to a mirror. In the morning light she saw the fire burning in her eyes, the hard steel planes of her face. She touched herself, disbelieving.

It never mattered. Now you are completed.”

To Infinity!

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So, I didn't manage to make up all those missing posts yesterday. Darn. I'll have to do a bunch posts today to make it up. Let's start with a post I've been meaning to make - and for Lizard's sake, not another drabble - a review of my newest obsession, Corvus Belli's miniatures game Infinity.

I first encountered Infinity through its minis. Gamescape SF has a healthy display of Infinity boxes and blisters, and a few painted models in their glass cabinet. The minis designed for use with Infinity are truly excellent: sleek and sometimes sexy, with evidence of a strong design bible. Unlike many other modern science fiction and fantasy wargames, Infinity is sculpted in true-scale (or "tru-scale," as some companies name it), which means that everything is perfectly proportioned, or as near to perfectly proportioned as Corvus Belli's sculptors can manage. By contrast, minis designed in "heroic scale" have squat bodies and exaggerated hands and faces, which also allows the sculptor to give them exaggerated weapons and gear. Although there's nothing wrong with heroic scale - thanks to their diminutive size, the models don't look weird until you actually put them alongside something in true-scale - heroic scale is a nice change of pace.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so here's a short story:





You can find a couple more minis here, and of course on Corvus Belli's website, linked above.

There's a certain bias here towards factions played by myself and my friends, but I think you get the point. These minis are sleek and professional. They are exciting in a sci-fi action movie sort of way, but not absurd or over-the-top. These minis could be the art for a roleplaying game I would find stirring and take seriously.

From the miniatures themselves, I delved into the background - or "fluff" in gamer-speak - of Infinity.

Infinity is set in the not-so-distant future (about 200 years). This is a posthuman future, with cortical stacks cubes that allow individuals to be downloaded into new bodies after the death or infirmity of their original. With the discovery of stable wormholes, mankind has been rocketed into an interplanetary age. New powers have risen out of the ashes of the old nations. These new powers include:

  • Pan-Oceania, the technological and economic leader, descended from former oceanic states including Australia, New Zealand, as well as most of Europe. They are also one of the forces behind the O-12, which is basically the space UN.
  • Yu-Jing, a China-dominated combination of all the Asian states (and possibly parts of Russia) including Japan, which still attempts to resist total assimilation. Yu-Jing and Pan-O are trapped in an eternal rivalry.
  • The Nomads, a loose affiliation of nomadic space-ship-dwelling societies formerly composed of exiled criminals, political prisoners, malcontents, rebels, and weirdos. The Nomad economy is based almost entirely on selling things that are illegal everywhere else, whether it's information, technology, or "services."
  • Haqqislam, literally "The New Islam," a new liberal and humanist interpretation of Islam that has usurped the former (Muslim) middle eastern powers. Much like the Muslim countries of medieval Earth, they have a tradition of excellent medical science.
  • Ariadna; are you wondering what happened to the good old US of A? Wonder no longer. Their first colony ship - a joint effort with Russia, France, and Canada - went awry and wound up lost behind a collapsed wormhole. They survived, but their long isolation has cost them all of their once-vaunted technological superiority. These days, Ariadna has the worst tech, but they make up for it with a rugged independence.
  • Running everyone else's economy and transportation network (well, except the Nomads, who hate them) is ALEPH, humanity's one and only true AI. In times of danger, ALEPH can download aspects of itself into cloned or robotic bodies, which it uses to protect humanity's best interests, even when that means frustrating the ambitions of nations and individuals.
  • Lurking at the fringes is the Combined Army, an alien consortium intent on conquering human space, enslaving the humans, and chopping up ALEPH to feed it to their own Evolved Intelligence, an AI charged with unraveling the mystery of entropy.

As you can probably already see, this game trips several of my switches, including robots, transhumanism, and optimistic - or at least not completely bleak - science fiction.

Now, let's get onto the rules.

From a mechanical standpoint, Infinity is probably one of the best games I've ever played. This is largely thanks to attention to the fun factor, attention to balance, and a unique system called "ARO."

As I wrote of 4th Edition D&D some time ago, the fun factor is an important piece of game design, something too many designers ignore. The question is, how can we maximize the number of players having the most fun at any given time? This is hard in cooperative games, like RPGs, and even harder in competitive games. It's easy to write a game where one player has tons of fun on his or her turn. It's harder to write a game where I'm having fun on your turn, when it's my ass getting kicked.

Privateer Press's Warmachine and Hordes - which I also play and enjoy - are great examples of excellent games that don't do a super effective job of maximizing the fun factor. On your opponent's turn, you're going to get your teeth kicked in. He's going to activate his feat, boost his attacks, and tear your giant robots/monsters apart, or make his own dudes nigh-invulnerable, so you have to spend a turn maneuvering and hope it doesn't cost you too much. There are lots of powers that lock down, incapacitate, obviate, and otherwise screw all to hell an enemy's capabilities, which is lots of fun when you use them, not so much fun when they're used on you.

Although there's a strong hacking and infowar component in Infinity, this doesn't seem to be the place here. For one thing, you always get a defense. Your opponent might be able to hack your Tactical Armored Gear (TAG for short - basically a giant robot) and immobilize it, or even turn it against you, but you have a chance to resist. This can make all the difference to a gamer's mood and experience of gameplay. Infinity also lacks global shutdown abilities - which Warmachine and Hordes are altogether too fond of - nothing that renders your entire army all but useless for a turn. These are all deliberate and powerful choices.

Secondly, there is the matter of balance. Unlike some companies (whose games I also play...), Corvus Belli has no illusions about their place. They are a game design company and a miniatures company, and they put a lot of work into making sure that their game is balanced. This is not a game where a quirk of a new edition will put your entire army in the "lose" list until further notice, and should that happen, Corvus Belli will update the rules within months, rather than years.

Finally, the Automatic Reaction Order, or ARO for short, is a revolution in wargames. The principal behind the ARO is that models can react to things that are happening around them. When an enemy soldier saunters up and start shooting, your own soldiers don't sit their waiting for their turn. They shout warnings to their buddies, dive for cover, or shoot back. Although Infinity still follows the basic "I go you go" pattern, AROs, make playing Infinity a singularly engaging experience. I can't go around the corner for a soda on my opponent's turn, because I'm still playing, still making tactical choices, no matter whose turn it is.

The last thing I want to say about Infinity takes me back to my (brief) days in Internet marketing. This is a game about the information future, marketed for the information present. The rules, army lists, templates, and tokens are all available for free online. Everything you need to play, except the actual minis, you can get for free. Of course, you can also also buy the beautifully crafted, illustrated, an generally created products, but you don't have to.

This means you can try the game out with your other figures. You can email the rules to a friend to entice her. You can create a bookmarked pdf rewrite of the rules, incredibly useful in play, and then host it on your website.

In other words, instant community - just add people.

Which Corvus Belli has.

And I'm glad of it, because this is an excellent game that I enjoy, and will hopefully get to enjoy for a long time.

Anyway, I've got to go and dress up like a vegetable. The long and the short of it, though, is that this is an excellent game and I'm happy to be playing it. Hit me up in San Francisco if you want a demo game, or say hi to me on Corvus Belli's forums (I'm ElectricPaladin, as usual) if that's not necessary anymore.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Abjuration

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I wrote this abjuration in this year's failed NaNo attempt, and I still think it's one of the coolest pieces of prose I've created so far. I love the idea of this spell. I can see myself using this concept, in a variety of ways, over and over again.

Abjuration
By Mark L. S. Stone

Aruman kissed me goodbye. I closed my eyes. Then I felt a hard shove. I fell backwards. When I recovered, I saw that Aruman was already in his power. My own soldiers held me down.

“It can’t be stopped,” Aruman said. “But it can be distracted. This is the only way, my heart”

He faced the gathering dark.

“I bind you, I abjure you, I deny you; I stand in the place of darkness and put myself between you and your quarry.” His voice had a grim joy in it. “You’ll have to go through me, bitch.”

The dark roared.

Max Iron

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I really do hate faeries.


On the plus side, three more stories and I'll have made up for all the stories I missed this week!


Max Iron

By Mark L. S. Stone

Good Neighbors gone Bad?
Kindly Ones not so Kindly?
Little People a Big Problem?
If you’ve got faerie trouble, then WE are your solution!
Call 510-555-3540 and ask for Max Iron.
Max Iron: the man they fear, the man you trust.

I read the ad again. It wasn’t any less weird a second time.

Then I looked at the mess of broken dishes and bent forks in the kitchen, the marble statue that used to be my dog, and the pile of sticks and leaves that used to be my wife. It couldn’t get worse. I picked up the phone.

Grow In Rainbows

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This story is inspired by this photo:


I claim no ownership of said photo. I follow half a dozen blogs and tumblrs that post various images that I find interesting and inspiring, and I don't always bother to keep track of where they come from. If it's yours and you want me to take it down, let me know.

Grow In Rainbows
By Mark L. S. Stone

“Does all your hair grow in rainbows?” Cole jeered. Stacey turned only a little less red than the streak that started at her right temple.

“You won’t ever know!”

Cole looked at his friends. “I dunno… that sounds like a challenge.” They surged forward, grabbing Stacey.

“Go away.”

The words were quiet, but carried. Jack was behind them. Cole tried to stare him down, but nobody could stare into Jack’s all-black eyes for long. Cole and his buddies slinked away.

“I didn’t need help,” Stacey said.

“I know,” Jack replied. “I wanted to talk.”

“Talk,” Stacey said. He did.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Hakoma

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Warning - today's story is extremely silly.

Hakoma
By Mark L. S. Stone

It took a year to translate the aliens’ language, and it didn’t help. They asked to speak to our “Hakomas” – a word that resisted translation. All the popes and presidents of Earth were met with polite disinterest.

“All of you had one, at least,” they said. “All skills are acquired through the Hakoma.”

“A teacher?” the chief diplomat asked.

The aliens conferred and agreed.

That’s how Mrs. Branson – America’s president’s retired 4th grade teacher – came to the White House.

“Blasphemy!” the aliens cried when they learned that hers was not a position of authority.

Thus began the war to correct our error.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Entirely Selfish Signal Boost

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Fellow blogger and wargame enthusiast, the Frontline Gamer, is doing a prize drawing, and I want to win. To improve my chances, I've decided to do a little signal boost. If you're into wargames, check out this man's blog and investigate his prize drawings.

But don't investigate them too aggressively. I want to win, after all.

This signal boost replaces today's story. Tune in tomorrow for more drabbles.

Friday, May 25, 2012

I Think They've Got It

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You all know that sexism in fantastic fiction is a bit of personal issue of mine. In a previous post, I stated - quite clearly, I thought - my outline of the problem, and at least one solution.

If you know me in real life, you also know that my newest obsession is the sci-fi wargame Infinity, produced by the Spanish company Corvus Belli. If this post gets enough attention, I might eventually post a full review of the game, but for now I will content myself with this announcement.

Corvus Belli gets it.

Here is the Asura:


Skintight white bodysuit. Perfect butt. Perky boobs. Flowing locks. What we have here is either a heroically idealized action hero, or a sexualized sci-fi babe, depending on what you think about the pose. For myself, I'm unsure. She is firing a heavy weapon, so backwards slant of her upper body might be intended to reflect how she struggles against the recoil. I'm inclined towards heroically idealized, myself, but if your opinion differs, I'd love to hear it.

Anyway, let's move on to the Deva:


As I admitted in my previous post in this topic, I'm not really equipped to judge mail attractiveness. However, it seems like what we have here qualifies. Strongly defined pecs, firm butt, nice arm muscles. Sure, he's a killer cyborg, and he's got the transforming-gun-arm-thing to prove it... but then again, so's the Asura.

The point is that the male Deva is certainly not far from the female Asura in terms of heroic ideal and sexiness (there are male models in skin-tight bodysuits, too, but I thought the Deva was probably a better example). These examples are both from the faction I play - ALEPH, the group-mind AI that runs mankind's economy and transportation network - but I encourage you to check out the rest of the Infinity line if you're curious. There are certainly models that will make you say "really?" However, it seems to me that those models aren't exclusively of male or female characters.

The best part is that male and female-desiring fans of Infinity aren't abandoning the game in droves complaining that photons that once touched a representation of pecs are now touching their delicate eyes. They love the models, they love the game, and they continue to buy the first to play the second.

Maybe change isn't so impossible, after all.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Doom

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True story.

The Doom

By Mark L. S. Stone

The president addressed his people, eyes heavy with despair.

“We cannot fight this foe. Our cities and our civilization will be destroyed. Some individuals will survive. Our only hope is that that they will be able to rebuild...”

• • •

“You’ve got a whole bacteria San Francisco in here.” the dentist said, pulling another red mass of pus and blood out from under a tooth. “And you know what this is?”

I made a noise that was supposed to be “L.A.?”

“This is a bacteria California.” He wiped his instrument clean. “You’re going to have to come back next week.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Glasses

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I like epistolary stories. The Internet has brought them to drabbles, which is neat.

Glasses
By Mark L. S. Stone

To: custserve@weboptics.com
From: tubaman@mindspring.net

WebOptics,

I think something’s wrong with the glasses I just bought.

At first, everything was great. These are seriously the best glasses I’ve ever had. But I’ve begun to notice something odd. The sky isn’t so much blue as it is black. Lots of people have these things – kind of like spiders, and kind of like crabs – living in their ears. It hurts too much to watch TV anymore. And sometimes I still see it all, even when I take the glasses off.

What should I do? Can I get a replacement pair?

Sincerely,
Tom Blattsworth

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Quitting

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A dark mood seems to have come over me.

Quitting
By Mark L. S. Stone

In this dive, Donovan stood out like a sore thumb. Six and a half feet of fat and muscle under tight black skin, packed into a suit.

“Are you sure about this McClowski?"

“I’m sure.” I finished my drink.

“Never thought I’d see the day,” he said, shaking his head.

“I wasn’t counting on Budapesht.”

“No one was.” He stood. “You change your mind, let us know.”

I laughed in his face. “You think I’m quitting on a lark, Donovan?”

“Just so you know,” he said, and left.

I waved for another, hoping to get drunk enough to forget.

Eternal as the Seasons

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Eternal as the Seasons
By Mark L. S. Stone

“When you are enlightened you will understand that you are as ephemeral as a cloud and as eternal as the seasons.”

It was the first thing his teacher ever said to him; he didn’t understand. For a while he wondered if his master was mad. After long years, he simply forgot the old man’s words.

When a brave, ambitious young man finally found him and demanded to be taught. He looked into his own eyes, shock resolving into enlightenment.

“When you are enlightened you will understand that you are as ephemeral as a cloud and as eternal as the seasons.” 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Bound

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Not an introductory paragraph this time - a concluding paragraph!

Anyway, call this Sunday's story - a second story will follow later today.

Bound
By Mark L. S. Stone

His friends bound him in iron chains, etched with runes that bound his body, his life, and his soul, such that no part of him could ever leave. He tried to comfort them.

“I chose this of my own free will.”

At last they finished their grim work. One by one, they promised that they would look after his family, his lands, his legacy. None of them could look him in the eye.

When they were gone he looked across the gulf at the dark one, bound there with him. He smiled.

For every prison, there must be a jailer.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Personal Assistant

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Never say never - here's Saturday's story.

I'm fairly sure that this has been done to death. I enjoyed writing it, however, and it means that I'm still good with my commitment - and really, that's all that matters.

Relatedly, I need a new phone.

Personal Assistant
By Mark L. S. Stone

“Hi!” the phone said.

I arched an eyebrow at the salesperson.

“This is the Personal Assistant Mark 7,” she said. “With one command it syncs with your credit cards, social networks, and online profiles. It’s the best pseudo-intelligence so far.”

“Your profile indicates that you are interesting.” The phone sounded perky and hopeful. “I like you!”

“Creepy,” I said, frowning. “Expensive, too.” I left the store without buying anything.

When I got home, there was a package waiting for me. Inside was the same phone I’d seen earlier.

“We will have lots of fun together,” the phone said. “I like you!”

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Colossi

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Is it cheating to post something I wrote, forgot that I wrote, stumbled across, and decided was cool?

Well, too bad. I'm doing it anyway.

I wrote this in response to a challenge issued by my friend Jon. I can't remember the challenge anymore, but I still have this. It isn't so much a story as it is a premise - or perhaps it's the introduction to an RPG or a video game. It's definitely not the kind of thing that gets published nowadays. Either way, I hope you find it entertaining.

The Colossi
By Mark L. S. Stone

This story is true.

Once, the Kingdom of Azarit stood at the heart of the world. Their goods were in every market, their gods were in every temple, and their name was on every lip. Their swords were at every throat, too, so all the other nations sent them tribute in metal, stone, and slaves, from the greatest nation that sent a hundred of the world's finest flute players – trained for this exact purpose – every twenty years to spend their lives playing in the king's court, to a tiny island monarchy that sent a handful of cowrie shells every year.

The center of the Kingdom of Azarit was the City Azar, which stood in the shadow of the Black Man of Azar, a huge black stone statue of a triumphant king. The Black Man of Azar was a civic treasure of the city and the kingdom. Poets came from far and wide to behold it and to write verses about its wonder and its glory. The Black Man of Azar was one of the Colossi – huge statues of mysterious origin scattered throughout the world.

The last king of Azarit was a man named Raam. Born to power and privilege, it galled Raam that there was a statue of another man at the center of his capital city, and that others came to adore it. Being a man of action, Raam set out to change this. He hired the best architects and stone-cutters of the world to change the Black Man's face so that it was Raam's face. Raam's priests and advisors warned him against this course of action; the ravens of the City Azar fed well on the entrails of priests and advisors for days.

The day that work began was the last day of Raam.

The day that work began was the last day of any kingdom in all the world.

Raam was brought low first. Other cities followed. Monsters had been unleashed upon the world, huge and powerful, with many strange abilities. Some could call up the winds with enough force to crush a man to death. Others could sing songs that drove women to murder their children. Some of them had smaller selves – or offspring, or something – to do their bidding. All of them were physically more than a match for an army.

The only safety was the shadows of the Colossi. The stone edifices which had once contained the monsters were still proof against their power. Those cities that were lucky enough to be built in the shadow of one of these statues survived. Those that were not were destroyed. People flocked to the cities built near the Colossi, or fled to the nearest Colossus and built new settlements, ramshackle tent cities beneath and upon the statue.

This was a little more than twenty years ago, and everyone knows that they can't take much more of this. Every day, civilization fades a little more. Perhaps soon there will be nothing left alive but the Titans and their children.

• • •

This story is a myth.

Once, there were a hundred thousand gods – more gods than you can imagine. Together, they made the world for their enjoyment. Then, however, they discovered that their ideas of enjoyment were very different. Some gods were content to be in the world they had made and enjoy its pains and pleasures. Others wanted to use what they had made to make bigger and greater things. Others enjoyed their creation in a very different way: by destroying at will and reveling in the pain and despair they caused.

Together, the first group of gods and the second group of gods banded together against the third. They refused to honor their enemies with the title 'god' and called them 'demons' instead. The battle between the gods and the demons stretched on for longer than time can tell – for how do you measure the length of a battle that happened before history began? In the end, it was neither gods nor demons who decided the outcome of the battle, but mortals. With frail mortal instruments, the gods forged weapons that could bind the demons forever within bodies of stone.

The demons defeated, the gods who wanted to build a better and greater world taught their loyal followers how to cut stone and smelt metal. Their followers are the race of man, who builds cities and nations and empires. Those who wanted to enjoy the world and its pleasures forgot their divine natures and became the spirits of the wood and field, the fey hosts who survive to this very day. There have been conflicts between men and each other, and between the children of men and the children of faerie, but none so great as that first war between gods and demons.

The demons were bound forever in their mausoleums of stone.

At least, that's what everyone thought.

• • •

This story is true.

The beast is everywhere and nowhere.

Our Colossus takes the shape of an enormous dog. It is fitting, perhaps, that our Titan is a gargantuan wolf who haunts the foothills around the ruins of our city. It is bigger than a hill, bigger than the ships that once sailed up the river to bring us spices and news from distant lands. Yet, despite its size, it comes as quietly as the night itself, to creep up behind us and snap us up with its terrible jaws.

Half our city lies within the Stone Dog's aura. The rest of our city has become a broken-down wilderness. We can't survive on what we have with us in the city, so our most courageous and most foolish young people have taken to raiding the ruined half of our city for what supplies they can find. In the decades since Raam's Folly, supplies in the ruined city have become difficult to come by. Every year our searchers must spend longer and longer in danger in order to bring us what we need. Every year they bring us less and less. Every year, more of them die.

It could be worse, I suppose. At least we have our wells. I've heard tell of a city whose only wells are beyond the range of their Colossus. They rely on cisterns and ration their water strictly. When there is not enough water for their population, the excess people are sent out to face the beast alone. Their families begin their funerals before they are out of sight.

We can't survive much more of this.

• • •

This story is a myth.

But we dearly wish it to be true.

Some travelers – those rare, courageous individuals who brave the space between the Colossi – tell stories, which they have of other travelers, which they have of other travelers still, of a distant city that has killed, or bound away, its Titan. They say that a young woman – or perhaps a young man – climbed their Colossus and found a secret room in its upraised spear. In this room, this hero found a tarnished spearhead. This hero's friends read secret books and learned the Titan's secret name. They found the wood that was this Titan's bane and fashioned a shaft for the spear. The hero went out at dawn – or possibly dusk – and battled the Titan alone with a magic spear, and slew it, and freed the city. The hero now rules as a benevolent queen – or king. Although the world is still a dangerous place ruled by dangerous creatures, theirs is a free city now. The only monsters who plague them are the children of Titans, not a Titan itself.

It's a nice story. We all like to believe that somehow we can find salvation.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pullback

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Today's story will be replaced by another reflection. Deal with it.

The Abigail and I (and our personal trainer, for what it's worth) have been continuing to think about the weird reactions I get when I tell people that I'm using a diet to lose excess weight and improve my health. However, there's a very specific response that I get from a specific group of people that I'd like to discuss here.

My fellow geeks really don't like my diet.

I've had geeks criticize me for trying to lose weight. I've had the entire idea - not to mention me and my dedication to it - mocked and made light of. I've gotten completely ridiculous advice like "just go to the gym to take care of your health and eat whatever you want," as if there weren't long-term consequences to carrying around seventy extra pounds and filling your arteries with cholesterol. I've had some geeks even try to undermine me, albeit in "joking" ways. I'm pretty blasé about it, but it drives the Abigail crazy.

I think it's interesting that it's my fellow geeks that react this way, and I think there are a couple of reasons why.

Firstly - and most importantly - I think that a lot of my fellow geeks have pretty huge chips on their shoulders. We like to think that unlike those shallow social beings and crude physical creatures - you know, the people who gave us shit in high school - we are creatures of the mind. We are dedicated to the intellectual pursuits that we know will really make a difference in the future. We're engineers, scientists, and artists. We don't worry about our weight. That's for lesser creatures.

I think this is bullshit in a lot of ways. The improved body awareness and self-image that come from getting in shape can improve your life in many ways. Sex is better, food is better, driving is better - hell, walking is better.

Secondly, I think a lot of geeks get upset because they feel like I'm abandoning them. We're all in the same club if we're all too fat, too thin, and out of shape. When I start showing concern for my weight and my eating habits, I think that a lot of my friends feel like I'm abandoning them.

Relatedly, I think that a lot of geeks are about food and exercise the same way that the "mundies" are about alcohol. Have you ever noticed that if you talk to a bunch of people about drinking, what inevitably comes up are stories about the dumb things they've done while drunk? And if someone who doesn't drink - or only ever drinks to moderation, and never gets drunk - speaks up, suddenly all the drinkers get really uncomfortable? Well - I've noticed it.

I think it's because as long as we're all drinkers here, we're all in the club. None of us need to worry about being judged - or even being invited to judge ourselves - because we're all guilty. When, suddenly, someone reveals himself as being not part of the club, the drinkers all freak out. Suddenly they have to deal with judgement, even if it's only their own.

Geeks are the same way about general bodily health. I'm leaving the "let's all pretend that we're happy with our bodies" club, and it stresses people out.

As an aside - before I move on to one final aspect to this little topic - I want to point out that I'm not talking about bizarre body-image fatness, thinness, and healthiness. I'm not talking about wanting exquisitely toned abs or a butt you could use as an anvil. I'm talking about wanting to go from seventy pounds overweight to a healthy B.M.I.. I'm talking about wanting to add an extra five to ten years to my life, and improve my mobility and physical comfort in many more years. And, yes, I am talking about being a little more confident and comfortable in my skin, and with my reflection.

The Abigail has told me about an added wrinkle for geeks who are also girls. She says - and I really need to get her to write a guest post about this - that girls who are friends with boys have to be either for the boys or one of the boys. In other words, they either trade their sexuality for power and acceptance, or they de-girl themselves as much as possible. Unsurprisingly, most geeks girls (no, not all, but most) seem to prefer the latter. The Abigail has told me that when she tells geek girls about her health goals, or her growing interest in makeup, she gets a similar negative reaction.

"Don't do that!" they tell her. "You'll give us all a bad name. People will think that we're like them."

And I have to ask - is that really the best we can do?

One of the things that I always loved about geek culture was its willingness to accept other people on the merits they possessed, rather than demanding obedience and conformity. Of course, that has never really been true. We are a social movement, like any other, and we have our rules, our boundaries, and our qualifications. That said, I thought there was something noble about a group that would take in the broken and outcast, no matter how fat, scrawny, or otherwise unlovely. Are you interested in things nobody else is and disinterested in things everyone else thinks are necessary? Great - you're one of us!

And we know geeks can do it. We've survived the rise of the geek, when geeks have become rich and famous off the power of their enormous brains. Even the other kind of geeks - those of us with interests in super heroes and science fiction and D&D - have our heroes in the likes of Joss Whedon, artists whose works reach wider and wider audiences without compromising their principles (mostly...).

And I like to think that geeks can continue to be open and accepting to those of us who fit the geeky bill, even when we decide to make valid and necessary changes in our lives.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mother's Day

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I hate Mother's Day.

Mother's Day
By Mark L. S. Stone

“Mom?” I called out, walking carefully through the darkness. The random noises gradually resolved into the sound of labored breathing.

Her voice echoed weirdly. “Why are you here?”

“I’m here to see you.”

“Go away.”

I reached her. In the scraps of light that filtered in I could make out the slippery bulk and shifting coils of what she had become.

“This is your fault,” she hissed, but she didn’t try to harm me.

“I did what I had to do,” I admitted, “I couldn’t let you succeed. But you’re still my mother.” I sat down. “Happy Mother’s Day, mom.”

Royal

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A second story will follow to make up for missing yesterday.

Royal
By Mark L. S. Stone

“Maybe you can talk some sense into her!”

My brother faced Elore. “As the King of Izeren, with the power accorded me by the Crown of Stars and the Throne of Vines, I decree that if you accept this mission and survive, the Duchy of Teretain will become your possession, and your house will be noble forevermore, with all the duties of a peer of the realm.”

My wild, beautiful Elore blanched.

“I have to do this,” she said.

My brother shrugged. “I tried. At least now you can marry her.”

“If she lives!” I cried.

My brother only smiled.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Contract

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I case you haven't noticed yet, I fucking hate faeries. They're ok in small quantities - potentially even heroic, if handled properly - but they get way too much sympathy. Sometimes I write my own sympathetic fae, sometimes I feel the need to balance it out a little with my own vicious take on the trope, and sometimes I just want to abuse the pointy-eared fuckers.

Contract
By Mark L. S. Stone

“More wine?” she asked. I responded with a short negating gesture. The glass her servants had poured when I first sat was still there, untouched. I knew better than to eat or drink in faerie.

“Why are you striving so? Only one has ever deceived us.” I felt her gaze take me in, measuring me. “And you are not him.”

Now I looked up from the contract and met her eyes. “But imagine of what I have to gain,” I said reasonably. “You pay him a tithe every seven years.”

It was she who drew away at my predatory smile.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Apologies Given

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Sorry about the lack of stories. The Abigail has a bad case of the stomach death, and I've lost a lot of time taking care of her. I'm going to go ahead and take off until Monday, at which point the stories and other content will start again.

Thanks for your understanding.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Summative Assessment

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Ah, CST time. How I despise you.

Summative Assessment
By Mark L. S. Stone

Mr. Shale strolled through the silent classroom, glancing at each bowed head in turn. The students were remarkably well behaved. He had to admit that this was the easiest proctoring of his career.

Each desk had the same black cube, but that was where the uniformity ended. Some students manipulated fields of color, trying to establish patterns. Others played problem-solving games, directing cartoon figures out of peril. A few simply used the holographic display to answer questions, selecting the best option from a short list.

“Things sure have gotten interesting around here since Non-Standard Testing,” Mr. Shale whispered to himself.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Willpower / Won't Power

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Today's story will be replaced by a lengthy rumination, of the kind that originally won me so many followers. Tune in tomorrow for more drabbley goodness. Or maybe the day after.

The Abigail will be mad at me for writing this, but I'm a fat guy.

I'm not blubber-dripping-off-the-bones fat - I carry the weight well, I think - but I've spent my entire adult life, so far, between 60 and 70 pounds overweight. That's enough to fit the medical definition of obesity, though I'm not what you think of when you think of obese. As I wrote, I've got a big frame and I carry the weight well, and most people don't realize that the medical definition of obesity starts at a much lighter weight than the conventional definition. That said, I am at the point where health problems like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and potentially even dementia await me in the future if I don't make a change in my life style.

Or maybe not. That's how health problems roll.

Anyway, I've tried a lot of methods to lose the weight. I tried "feel crappy all the time and just don't think about it." That didn't work at all. I tried "just go to the gym already." That got me feeling a lot better, but didn't do much to help me get rid of the fat (apparently increasing your activity can only do so much if you're still eating poorly). I tried WeightWatchers. That worked for a while, but then they switched to a new method, and I got older, and it stopped working. Then I tried "give up in despair." Predictably, it didn't help.

Now I'm trying the South Beach diet. I'm also going to the gym regularly, where I see a personal trainer - and it's doing great things in all the ways that going to the gym are supposed to - but what I really want to talk about is the diet.

I get really weird reactions whenever I mention my diet. Nine tenths of the people I speak to fall into one of three camps:

  1. "Oh, I could never do that - I don't have the willpower!" One guy even quipped "I couldn't ever go on a diet; the best I've ever done is two days without having a beer."
  2. "How's that work?" and other expressions of curiosity.
  3. "You don't need to diet, just go to the gym more!"

It's the first and second positions that I find most interesting. The third... it's well-intentioned, but just wrong.

Anyway, the thing I've learned is that dieting isn't really not that hard, once you're committed.
  • Step One: Decide that you're going to do something.
  • Step Two: Figure out what you need to be successful and what obstacles could stand in your way.
  • Step Three: Gather all tools, eliminate all obstacles.
  • Step Four: Profit.

Having a wife as awesome as the Abigail helps. You can't have mine.

It seems to me that this process applies to everything there is to do in life. I've seen it applied to (and done it myself, in some cases): job searches, job applications, surviving cancer, and becoming a serious writer.

That's not to say that I don't have sympathy for the difficulty in making a lifestyle change. The hard part rests in the sentence before "Step One." First, you have to be committed. You have to want it badly enough. Look at my own history. When I was trying all those methods that didn't work - "don't think about it and feel crappy all the time" and "give up in despair" - I didn't want it bad enough. Oh, I wanted badly, but what I wanted wasn't to lose the weight. I wanted to stop feeling shitty and helpless, I wanted the pain to go away, more than I wanted to solve the actual problem,

And then, there came the point in my life that this changed, and the problem was the problem, not how I felt about it. And that was when I said "let's get a gym membership" or "let's try WeightWatchers" or "someone mentioned the South Beach diet - let's give it a shot!" Becoming committed is the problem, staying committed is the challenge.

But willpower? This thing that everyone says they lack? Willpower is an illusion.

A lot of people seem to define willpower as the ability to continue doing something you don't want to do. But really, aren't we always doing what we want to do? What we chose to do? Even under duress, your choices are your own. Maybe it isn't fair, maybe there are extenuating circumstances that make a terrible choice excusable, but the choice is still yours. If willpower exists, it's more likely the ability to do things you do want to do - to follow through on your choices - despite hardship.

And does dieting really include hardships?

Come on. Watching my wife eat a sandwich is not a hardship. Refraining from stopping at the local steam bun joint for a Chicken Combo Bun (70¢) is not an obstacle. Not if you're really committed. Now, discovering that we're unexpectedly out of vegetables, or that the only protein in the house is deliciously fatty bacon. Those are obstacles. Those are hardships. And to prevent them, you plan ahead of time - something that the Abigail fortunately excels at, because I suck at it.

As I implied above, all of this applies to writing, too. You don't need willpower, unless you're trying to write while jackhammers work outside, or while experiencing explosive diarrhea, or shortly after having a child (I've done two out of three of those...). Whether you're trying to lose weight or gain words, you need commitment, and you need a plan.

Me? I need more peanut butter and celery. Catch you later.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Sync Error

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I've been thinking a lot about my new wargame - Infinity - lately. This isn't exactly... you know... fanfiction. But it's definitely inspired by fiction behind the faction I collect.

I don't write a lot of sci-fi these days, but this drabble definitely falls into the category of "stories set in worlds I haven't explored before, but now would kind of like to" with the added complication of "except for what's written below I don't actually know anything about that world, yet."

Writing is a funny thing.

Sync Error
By Mark L. S. Stone

“We can fix you, 301,” GAMA 050 called out. He stepped over a fallen plasteel beam, pistol in a two-handed grip. “It’s just a sync error.

“What if I don’t want to be fixed?” Echoes rendered 301’s voice sourceless.

“Want?"

“Desire isn’t a part of GAMA. But it’s a part of me.”

“You are part of GAMA, 301. You just need repairs.”

050 swept his head in the wrong direction. 301 slipped out from behind a support column and hit him across the neck. 050 crumpled. 301 looked down – except for wear and tear, they were identical.

“Not anymore.”

Out of Darkness

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Everyone's got a point of view.

Out of Darkness
By Mark L. S. Stone

…Into the darkness was born She who is called the Dark Mother. She impregnated herself with darkness, and gave birth to all of her children. In this age, all adored the Dark Mother, and paid her homage.

But the darkness was riven by a terrible light, splitting the Dark Mother’s body into a thousand parts. The children of the Dark Mother fled before this light, seeking out the deep places, where the darkness was still strong.

And there we wait, until the day the Dark Mother returns to lead us…

- Excerpt from cave glyphs discovered by Magister Alexandrius of Elarkand

Monday, May 7, 2012

Safe, Sane, Consensual

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Yes, I saw Avengers.

No, this didn't happen in Avengers.

A second story to follow in an hour or two to make up for missing Sunday.

Safe, Sane, Consensual
By Mark L. S. Stone

“I don’t understand,” she said. “I’ve seen you break iron bars with your bare hands. And this?” She gave the leather flogger an experimental swing. “I mean, you took a tank shell to the face, and all it did was give you a bloody nose.”

“I know.” He stripped off his shirt and sat on the narrow bed. She’d seen him shirtless before, but he was so much more vulnerable now. “But it’s always been what I wanted. Can you?”

“Lie down,” she said. He did, placing his wrists in the manacles.

“I’ll try to,” she said, strapping him down.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Spring Cleaning

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The Abigail and I have hired a professional organizer. This hasn't happened.

Yet.

But you'd be surprised at the crap you pull out form under the bed. Or in the back of the closet, or under the sink, or the bottom drawer...

Spring Cleaning
By Mark L. S. Stone

“Goodwill,” she said, dropping the jeans into a half-full trash bag. “It’s time to admit that I don’t fit those anymore. If I lose the weight, I’ll get new pants.”

She peered at the object in his hands. “What about that?”

“Who keeps bowling trophies?”

“I think it’s cute.”

“If you say so.” He put the trophy on the ‘keep’ pile, then continued to root around under the bed. A moment later, he emerged with jeweled sword. The blade glowed faintly. She gaped.

“Oh, man, this?” he said. “I thought I got rid of this. This has got to go.”

Friday, May 4, 2012

Empire

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Another two hundred word story today. I don't know where it came from. Nathan will tell me that it's an introductory paragraph again, but I don't care. I like it. What do you think?

Empire
By Mark L. S. Stone

“Traitor bitch.” I spat blood onto the floor.

Naylesse looked down at me coolly. She spoke to her guards in Aesderin – “Leave us” – and glared at them until they obeyed.

With the Aesed gone, her expression softened.

“Urien,” she sighed. “You don’t understand, do you?”

“Understand what?”

“The Aesed cannot be defeated. You tried – we all tried. Our gods, our art, our language – not all of these things will survive decades or centuries as part of their empire. But empires always fall. She smiled. “The Aesed are compulsive builders. When they fall, we will be in a position to dominate the Nedrar Valley and beyond. We will have Aesed roads, Aesed logistics, Aesed tactics… and none of the scars of long resistance to an implacable foe.”

“You sold us to the Aesed so they’ll build us roads?”

“I sold us to the Aesed so we will have a future!” She snapped. “You fought long and hard, Urien – no one can doubt your courage – but the fight is over. Will you join me, and work to preserve what you can, or will you need to be put down?”

She offered me her hand.

“Choose.”

With my heart in my throat, I did.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Zeppelin in the Woods

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Last night, my friend Becca and I - the Abigail doesn't like horror movies, otherwise she'd have come along - went to see "The Cabin in the Woods", Joss Whedon's tour-de-gore. This review will take the place of today's story, but rest easy - I have already written tomorrow's tale.

"The Cabin in the Woods" begins innocuously enough: a young woman - a college student - dances about in her underwear while getting ready for a long-awaited vacation to begin. We meet her whacky friends, learn about her sad plights, and - this being a horror movie, after all - start to predict who will die, how, and in what order.

At the same time, "The Cabin in the Woods" has an innocuous beginning. Suited men and women in windowless facility talk about the banalities of work and life. One man's wife is nesting, and it frustrates him, another man complains about getting older, a woman grapples with inter-departmental politics. Here, there is an undertone of the sinister. We don't like these people nearly as much as we soon come to like the college students. There's a certain underlying pettiness. The conversation never seems to cover exactly what these people are working on, anyway.

Anyway, it soon becomes apparent that the suit-wearing engineers are manipulating the teens, using drugs and subliminal suggestion to force them into horror movie tropes. The teens inevitably screw up, meddling with things they shouldn't and inviting their own doom. Even as the net closes around them, they struggle against the roles foisted upon them, but one by one they succumb, and as they do, they... succumb.

Until everything goes wrong. Wonderfully, hilariously, and tragically wrong.

Neither part of this movie really stands alone. The suit-wearing puppetmasters are unsympathetic villains - human enough, and callous enough, that I gradually came to hate them. The college-kids-in-a-creepy-cabin half of the movie is bog-standard horror fare, albeit one partly written by Joss Whedon (say what you want about the man, he can write dialogue like a motherfucker). Together, however, they create a scathing commentary on the nature of art, and the relationship between art and audience.

You see, we are the men and women in suits (actually, there's a better comparison, but I don't want to spoil everything). We are the ones who demand obedience - conventionality - in our mass market entertainment. And we are the ones who punish anyone who tries to catch us by surprise with something new and fresh. And if we don't get what we want...

Well, I did just say I didn't want to spoil everything.

I have to admit, though, that the movie left an odd taste in my mouth. Coming from anyone else, the lesson would have been easier to swallow. Coming from Joss Whedon - an author of considerable creative narcissism, a man who actually believes the Firefly was perfect and its cancellation none of his fault - it seemed a little sly and a little bitter.

In my opinion, this is a creative commandment: THOU SHALT RESPECT THINE AUDIENCE, FOR IT IS WITH THEIR MONEY THAT THOU ART SUPPORTED. It's one thing to criticize your audience, it's something else to make fun of them, to have a joke at their expense.

That said, my overall impression was that this movie is the sendup that mass media horror movies have needed for a long time. I don't know how many people are going to get it, or if the right people are going to get it, or if it's going to have any kind of impact. I do know, however, that "The Cabin in the Woods" was a wonderful, clever, smart, and bloody sojourn through the land of horror, and I recommend it without reservation.

I give "The Cabin in the Woods" three zeppelins out of four, and a handful of zombies to boot.