Saturday, June 26, 2010

Robots, Sex, and Rock n' Roll

This tidbit comes to me from a neat blog that I follow, The Githyanki Diaspora, an exploration of gaming and fantasy that parallels my own. The author is Judd (the librarian), once one of the terrifying trio called the Sons of Kryos (now, alas, defunct).

Anyway, it's a music video, and it's also science fiction. I'd say it fails to establish a Burning Zeppelin Experience, mostly because narrative-wise, it's all style and no substance. That said, it illustrates a fascinating little world. I wish there were more to it.


Well, the question is, what would you have done to add more narrative - more burn - to this bit of fic? And does it really need more narrative after all, or is it something beautiful and compelling just the way it is?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Zeppelins in the Mist(born)

That's neat, but I'm still not one hundred percent happy with it. Maybe I should move on over to Wordpress or something. Hm...

Anyway, I didn't crack open Blogger today to bitch about the new formats. I did what I did for one purpose and one purpose alone: to write about Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy, which I recently (finally) finished.

I was introduced to Mistborn 1: The Final Empire by one of my colleagues at a school semisecret santa event (he gave me the first book of the Mistborn Trilogy and Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, I gave him noise-cancelling headphones to help deal with his new baby). Of course, being a first year teacher, I took the book home and didn't touch it for weeks.

When I finally did crack the cover, I was instantly enchanted. The Final Empire does an excellent job of immediately pulling the reader into the world with compelling characters, an immediately dynamic story, and a unique setting. I finished The Final Empire in about a month. The Abigail picked it up shortly thereafter and devoured it, finishing The Final Empire before I had made much headway in The Well of Ascension, stole it from me, and then went on to finish The Hero of Ages, the last book of the series, while I was still working on book two.

The Abigail is almost as busy as I was, so this is definitely a mark of approval. She's also finished Sanderson's Elantris and is currently working on Warbreaker.

The series gets even better as it goes on. Sanderson is a master of the reveal. He uses no cheap tricks ("and then he told them his plan") and no content-free revelations (*ahem* Lost *ahem*). Every revelation is a moment of perfectly broken tension, advancing the story and challenging the characters and their relationships. Sanderson is also good at creating characters who are very real, very three-dimensional, and nonetheless interact interestingly with larger themes and archetypes. Vin grapples with her role as a knife in the dark while her lover struggles to balance Elend the man with Elend the king.

I also need to praise Sanderson for the most creative use of what Diana Wynne Jones called "Gnomic Utterances" (see The Tough Guide to Fantasyland). Every chapter in the Mistborn Trilogy begins with an in-character writing by someone in the setting. In many fantasy novels (including at least one that I wrote) these chapter headers are mostly a waste of space, but not so in the Mistborn Trilogy. Each chapter header adds something to the story. In some cases, the big reveal of the novel is who, exactly, these writings come from in the first place.

What's most interesting about the Mistborn Trilogy is that we get to see Sanderson developing as a writer. The Final Empire was the first novel he wrote (though not the first he got published), and it suffers in places. After reading the first book, I was willing to class Sanderson as an apt inheritor of Robert Jordan's legacy: a talented writer who crafts good stories and adequate characters. By the time I finished The Hero of Ages I knew Sanderson was something much more: a truly brilliant author I have a lot to learn from, and one of my new favorites.

What's this? All style and no substance? What kind of blog review is this?

The Mistborn Trilogy tells the story of Vin, a thief on the streets of Luthadel, the capital city of the Final Empire, which sits astride a dying world of ash-choked skies and brutal monarchy. The ruler of the world is, aptly enough, the Lord Ruler, an immortal and (apparently) indestructible incarnate god. A class of lords and ladies, descended from the Lord Ruler's allies, hold dominion over the skaa, a slave class descended from the Lord Ruler's enemies. While a significant community of skaa thieves survive in the big cities, only one man dares oppose the Lord Ruler: Kelsier, the Survivor of Hathsin, the only man to ever escape the Lord Ruler's brutal mining operation.

As the plot is an unnatural (but awesome) hybrid of epic fantasy, urban heist, and kung-fu, the setting is a weird mix of Victoriana, epic fantasy, and alchemy. The people of the Final Empire carry pocket-watches and wear waistcoats or gowns. They have an understanding of industry, economy, and political theory that resembles 1800s Europe. At the same time, they carry swords and dueling canes and the Lord Ruler's military, the mysterious koloss, are monsters out of fantasy.

The setting's magic (which I've written of before) is a mix of all the elements above, and then some. Allomancy relies on ingesting and burning metals to produce a set of very specific effects, which combines alchemy and industrialization. Feruchemy, on the other hand... ah, but that would be telling.

In any case, I recommend the Mistborn Trilogy on all cylinders. Go forth and read.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Burning Service Announcement

Blogger has recently enhanced its platform with a number of fascinating features. There's only one problem: the format used by the Burning Zeppelin Experience is so old that it doesn't have access to any of these features.


So, there are going to be some changes here. The nightmare-inducing header will remain the same until I can hire an artist to create a burning zeppelin that is somehow cute, but the colors, fonts, and arrangement of the gadgets may fluctuate wildly in the coming week or so while I settle on a new theme, new layout, and tweak the colors.

Thanks for your patience. Keep on burning.

White Wolf Through the Decades

This is a post for the White Wolf fans out there. The rest of you can probably just ditch. Tomorrow's post, I promise, will have nothing to do with White Wolf.

If you've been following White Wolf's new lines, you've probably already heard about New Wave Requiem, A Vampire: the Requiem supplement that takes on the blood, sex, glitz, and corruption of America's 1980s. Well, a couple of days ago, the Abigail and I decided to pass the time by deciding when in the last few decades to set the rest of the new White Wolf canon.

The rules were simple; each game gets a decade and no game can share a decade. This has a resulted in a few less-than-perfect pairings, but I think we did a good job optimizing. By the way, I can't recall which ideas were the Abigail's and which were mine, so I'm going to just present the whole thing as our idea.

* * *

1920s - Werewolf: the Howling 20s

This one is almost a joke, but there's something to be said for werewolves, with their overwhelming dark and violent passions, attempting to navigate the postwar enthusiasm of the 1920s. This was an era of mixed mores, with a high society that combined some conservative values with growing social liberalism. All those passions, barely contained, are going to spawn lots of spirits, and for the Uratha, more spirits means more problems.

For other values of "spirits," the 1920s were also the decades of prohibition. With prohibition came organized crime, which is a world I imagine the werewolves would take to very well, Iron Masters, Storm Lords, and Ivory Claws especially.

In the meantime, America was significantly less urbanized in the 1920s, with numerous small towns and rural communities for the less citified tribes to play in.

There are definitely other good matches for Werewolf: the Forsaken. Werewolves and the noir 50s, for example, would match pretty well. However, only the 1920s provide the fascinating mix of propriety, passion, crime, and abundant rural settings

1930s - Promethean: Wasteland

In my opinion, the 1930s are the perfect historical setting for Promethean: the Created. The entirety of America was infected, sick unto death with depression and drought. Promethean drifters would find themselves entirely at home among the numerous ordinary humans forced to leave homes that don't belong to them anymore and farms reduced to so much dust. In fact, a great deal of the hobo culture that the writers of Promethean drew on to create promethean culture was born at this time, which leads us to ask another fascinating question: what were the prometheans like before they adopted hobo culture?

There are clues in the books, of course, but it would be neat to see it laid out.

The 1930s force prometheans to answer difficult questions as they search for humanity. What's the point of becoming human in a place and time when humans survive by living like animals or sitting, inhumanly aloof, with their surviving fortunes? What is the best way to use your promethean powers to help the people around you without turning them against you, and should you even try? Is the dustbowl all your fault?

1940s - Geist: Ghosts of Europe

World War II is a great setting for Geist: the Sin Eaters. The 1940s were an era of death for the whole world. Young men (and some young women) left home to fight and die on foreign soil. Living humans made themselves into monsters, and - the metaphysics of the World of Darkness dictate - made monsters of the ghosts of their victims. Whole peoples were wiped out by a madman's vision. And war has secondary victims as well: many die of disease, industrial accident, and heartbreak.

All that passion, all those principles, mingling with the spirits of the unjustly dead, spawning a generation of geists eager for hosts, eager to return to the world before it's too late to stop - or encourage - the slaughter.

I know this is a good pairing because I already have character concepts. One of the Bound's geist is a waterlogged shade of a sailor who died and was never recovered. He travels back and forth between the killing fields of Europe and the cities and towns of America, bringing ghosts home to their families so they can have a chance of moving on. A Jewish partisan, escaped from a death camp, is haunted by a black cloud that smells of burning human flesh, speaks in a cacophony of screaming voices, and urges him to find men and women wearing the twisted cross of the Nazi regime and hurt them. He's not sure he wants to resist.

It sends chills up and down my spine. I want to run this so bad I can taste it.

1950s - Hunter: Noir

The paranoia and conservativeness of the 1950s are make it fertile ground for Hunter: the Reckoning stories. This was an era of intrigue and shameful secrets. Hunters can be loyal Americans hunting down red spies who are also vampires and witches... or red spies, eager to do their best for the Motherland, who stumble into a conspiracy of monsters in the government they are supposed to be infiltrating. Private detectives ply their trade on rain slicked streets - and somehow, it's always night - and enter the vigil when they discover that a client's daughter isn't dead, but she isn't alive, either.

As you can see, I think applying a noir feel - not just a neo-noir feel, which you can do quite easily in any World of Darkness game, but a real, genuine, temporally accurate noir feel - would be great.

This is also an interesting time in Hunter's secret histories. This is when the scattered scholars who accidentally helped create the Nazi party would gather to become the Loyalists of Thule. This is when Null Mysteriis were only a decade old, still feeling their way into the World of Darkness. We'd also get to see compacts and conspiracies to replace the Long Night, Network Zero, and the Union, who either didn't exist yet or weren't formally organized... and we'd get hints of why these organizations don't exist in the modern World of Darkness.

It would be awesome. I'd set it in D.C.

1960s - Awakening Aquarius

The 1960s in America would be a fascinating time to be a mage. The humans thought they were close to achieving universal enlightenment... and maybe they were right. The Free Council would revel in an environment of psychodelic experimentation and social exploration. The Guardians of the Veil and the Seers of the Throne would find this time period very challenging, though for different reasons. All the other orders would have to deal with an influx of new recruits with a very different idea of what magic means and what they should do with. How would the Mysterium deal with undisciplined hippies who come to their order with a genuine love of learning and no respect for authority? Would the Silver Ladder find itself divided between reactionary social conservatives and serious but reform-minded young politicians? Would some Guardians break away, certain that the Age of Aquarius means the advent of the Hieromagus and the end of the Fallen World? Mages aren't immune to racism, so how does their society react to the civil rights struggles of the 60s?

I don't know, but I'd love to find out.

The 60s were a time of social upheaval and cultural transformation. It's a time when many segments of humanity started reaching towards Truth - towards the Supernal - and I can see great stories coming from mages finding themselves caught up in that rush.

1970s - Changeling Nights

And to bring us full circle, we're back to another pairing that's almost a joke. Changelings often come back from Arcadia looking ridiculous and frightening... and disco is ridiculous and frightening. It's a match made in Philadelphia.

More seriously, I see a lot of opportunities in the drug, dance, and club cultures of the 1970s for changelings to explore, discover, and destroy themselves. The fey have always loved music, and the 1970s were an area defined by its music. It's all the more fitting that it be an aggressively modern form of music. Between the Watergate scandal and the Jim Jones mass suicide, the 70s were an era of corruption and madness. It was also an era of economic and scientific growth and opportunity. Corrruption, madness, and opportunity - that's Changeling, right there.

* * *

I hope you enjoyed my efforts to shoehorn White Wolf's games into the last few decades. Please feel free to comment.

And if you happen to be a White Wolf developer, well... I've worked for you before, and I could always use more work. You know where to find me.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Beyond the Black Gate

Check this out: The Weird of Ironspell by John R. Fultz (with an illustration by Alex Sheikman, creator of the awesome ROBOTIKA), a piece of original fiction available on Black Gate, a fantasy magazine that rejected one of my stories a while back.

The Weird of Ironspell is a great example of short fiction: a thrilling narrative that evokes a larger story without having to go into all the details and emotionally real characters presented in very few words. More particularly, the story's conclusion is an entirely emotional experience... but I'll let you read it yourself to figure out exactly which emotion trumps what.

What are you waiting for? When I say short story, I mean short. You have no excuse not to follow the link above.

Go ahead.

I'll wait.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Burning Into Showbiz II

Remember a ways back when I posted to let you know that Escape Pod's Union Dues series (by Jeffrey DeRego) was being considered for translation to television? Escape Pod put out the call for fans of Union Dues, television, and superheroes to send in letters about why super hero shows generally failed and how to make one that succeeded. I never got response to my letter, though I assume that it was read (after all, I rarely get comments on these posts and I assume that they get read and you exist, perhaps even in plural).

Anyway, the important thing is that the process has moved forward somewhat. Union Dues has a new and spiffier website. The website isn't finished yet, and no products are available, but it looks like the marketing machine will soon be underway.

It's exciting to be living at a time when a series of short stories, released for free on a podcast, will be making their way to actual television. All hail the new media!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Live Long and What Now?

There are crazies, and there are crazies, and there are people even I'm moved to mock and shun. VHEMT goes beyond that last category and enters the world of movements I find myself actually despising. Seriously. Get this:

"VHEMT (pronounced vehement) is a movement not an organization. It's a movement advanced by people who care about life on planet Earth. We're not just a bunch of misanthropes and anti-social, Malthusian misfits, taking morbid delight whenever disaster strikes humans. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Voluntary human extinction is the humanitarian alternative to human disasters.

We don't carry on about how the human race has shown itself to be a greedy, amoral parasite on the once-healthy face of this planet. That type of negativity offers no solution to the inexorable horrors which human activity is causing.

Rather, The Movement presents an encouraging alternative to the callous exploitation and wholesale destruction of Earth's ecology.

As VHEMT Volunteers know, the hopeful alternative to the extinction of millions of species of plants and animals is the voluntary extinction of one species: Homo sapiens... us.

Each time another one of us decides to not add another one of us to the burgeoning billions already squatting on this ravaged planet, another ray of hope shines through the gloom.

When every human chooses to stop breeding, Earth's biosphere will be allowed to return to its former glory, and all remaining creatures will be free to live, die, evolve (if they believe in evolution), and will perhaps pass away, as so many of Nature's “experiments” have done throughout the eons.

It's going to take all of us going."

Let's start with VHEMT's "arguments," which boil down to a list of varyingly clever straw men, which they predictably line up and knock down. Then let's carry on to their failure to engage with the logical conclusions of their philosophy: why not kill people, support disease and murder, if you despite humanity and want it to cease? Why propose humanitarian action and when the continued existence and comfort of humanity is counter to your goals? If there's anything I frown on more than depressingly nihilistic, rhetoric-poor, spinelessly genocidal whackjobs, it's halfassed depressingly nihilistic, rhetoric-poor, spinelessly genocidal whackjobs. Come on, people! I've seen more enthusiastic and better-argued evil in poorly written pulp novels. I know you can do better!

This brings me to my final point. What do we do with things who disturb and frighten us? We make art about it!

Creative prompt: you know the conventions of modern/urban fantasy. Take a good long look at these VHEMT folks, maybe even peruse their website (linked above) and tell me what they're really about.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Androids and Tigers and Bears

I know the whole rewritten classics thing is getting big, but this? This? This?

This looks kind of neat, actually. I'll have to read it and then let you know. If any of you read it first, be sure to let me know. It's the circle of life.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Calls from Inside the Zeppelin

Pseudopod's inimitable host Alasdair Stuart (whose name isn't really spelled the way you expect it to be spelled, is it) is fond of saying that one of his favorite moments in horror is when you realize that the calls are coming from inside the house. By this, (I am fairly certain) he means the moment that you see, undeniably, that things are really, truly, desperately wrong. It's also the moment that the child comes into the light and you see that the blood on her shirt isn't hers, the heartbeat after the lights turn on and you see that the furniture has changed position, when his hood comes down and you see that there is no face underneath, and - to borrow another classical example - when the beautiful hitchhiker's mother says "I'm sorry, but our daughter died ten years ago."

The latest Psuedopod, The Mother and the Worm by Tim W. Burke revels in the approach to this principle that I find most compelling: it's not the calls that are coming from inside the house, it's the bad ideas that are coming from inside you. It's not the world that's wrong, it's you that are wrong, and you are going to have to deal with the consequences of your choices. Forever. The horror I love is the moment that it really sinks in that the blood on your shirt isn't yours, when the lights go down and you know when they come up again either you or she will be dead, when the hood comes up to shadow your face for your last time, and when you look at your victim and say "I'm sorry" and realize that you don't really mean it, not anymore, and maybe you never did. I don't know if the main character of The Mother and the Worm has really had that moment yet - this is the second story in what looks like a series of shorts - but I'm watching, and I have seen how his choices have damned and entangled him , and it's brilliant.

There are other examples of this moment in creative content I'm consuming right now. In Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn II: The Well of Ascension (warning: spoiler), there's a moment where "God," the voice in Zane's head, tells him that he isn't crazy, the voice is a real thing, not a delusion, and all his bad choices and misery are his own fault. In the world of rolyeplaying, anyone who's ever read or played a White Wolf game - especially either of the vampires, but the same is true for any of the new line of games as well - can see that the entire system is bent around creating that moment for the characters and the players. I could beat myself up and think of more, but I think I've made my point.

To get a little broader and step beyond mere linkcraft I want to describe what it is about this moment that I find so sad, beautiful, and haunting.

Ultimately, what it's about is a sense of transaction, something I've written about before. There's a sense in which many great stories live in the gulf between what someone wants, the price he is willing to pay for it, and what it actually costs. The moment of "the bad ideas are coming from inside my brain" kind of horror is about looking back at the price you paid and seeing that it wasn't really worth it, but now there's nothing you can do. Or, it's about putting a character in a situation where he pays a price he can't bear without knowing what he's doing, and then forcing him to see and suffer the undeserved consequences. Or, finally, it's about portraying a character seeing the cost, and finding worthwhile, but portraying it in such a way that the audience can't help but be appalled. In the end, however, it's always about price.

Frankly, there's often something beautifully protagonizing about this moment, and that's also part of why I - a fan of protagonists - love it so.

* * *

  • Where have you seen good examples of "the bad ideas are coming from you" in fiction?
  • What is the horror moment that most turns your metaphorical crank? Where does horror live for you?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Cowry Catchers! Cowry Catchers Cowry Catchers!

Is back! My commute is complete again!