City at the Top of the World – Preview

Aeryn’s stomach turned and knotted as her room shook.  Nearly a week had passed since she had been taken by those strange pale men and placed upon the sky sail, but she still found herself unadjusted to the traumatic and unnatural sensations of flight.  No one who was taken by the slavers of the north was ever seen again…


The Evil Package

I’m trying to get into the Hugo nomination packet, but I’m having trouble mostly because I have a hard time reading lengthy stuff on a screen. It wears me out and I lose my concentration after a few pages. But at least I can open pdfs.

I’ve only started to poke around in the packet, and I want to try to tackle the categories that I have the physical patience for reading on a computer (short fiction, and I might take a look at the Graphic arts stuff). I’m liking A Single Samurai better than I thought I would, and when I finish it, I might do a brief reassessment of the Short fic finalists.

Depending on how long the novelettes and novellas are, I might print off copies. If the packet is digital only, I’m probably not going to have time to get to the Novels, and though it’s implicitly acceptable to judge the Novels from just a portion of them, I don’t really think it gives one a fair assessment.


Coming soon, another Bar-Lev post!

Short Reviews – Horror Movie, Stuart Dybek

Horror Movie by Stuart Dybek appears in the January 1976 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Reading this story, I realized I’ll never be able to read SF/F featuring creepy old men offering to do things to little boys from the inner city without being reminded of Samuel R Delany now. Thank god that’s not something I’ll have to worry about often.

I feel as though I missed out on a vital part of the American experience, never having gone by myself or with friends (though without an adult present) to a bad horror movie at an age when I would be genuinely frightened by men in a wolf-man suit or in mummy bandages.  Damn if Horror Movie is not evocative of that feel, or at least what I presume that feeling to be.  But more than that, it’s evocative of a fear which I am thankful to have missed out on: growing up poor in the slums of Chicago.

Horror Movie follows a young boy who is having one hell of a bad and freaky weekend. His mother has been taken to the hospital while he was out due to a complication with a pregnancy which has left the bathroom a scary bloody mess. He is terrified of his mother’s abusive boyfriend. The boy is troubled by nightmares and is a habitual bed-wetter, yet loves watching horror movies (or at least masochistically enjoys subjecting himself to them). Much of the story is vivid descriptions of the boy’s dreaming and waking nightmares -all very strange and unsettling affairs- which serve as a mirror for the uncanny and alienating nature of the rotting and hostile urban setting in which the character is forced to grow up.

Horror Movie is a parade of the grotesque; the boy’s bad dreams, his living conditions, the blaxploitation horror movie he goes to see, the pederast usher, the crimes and decay of the city, the procession of urban nightmare fuel escalates, fluctuating between the real and imagined, ultimately culminating in a fat Puerto Rican lady tied to a lamp post getting kicked in the tit so hard it smacks her in the face as she half-heartedly begs the boy for help on his sojourn from the theatre. This strange and ghoulish tale ends with the kid locking himself in his dark house, slashing about at shadows with a kitchen knife for comfort. You almost expect the story to end with him accidentally plunging the knife into the abusive boyfriend, the mamacita neighbor who’d told him his mother was taken to the hospital, or -worst of all- his mother returning home, but all is left to the imagination of the reader.

While Horror Movie is an excellent example of modernist grotesque, it would be a stretch to call it speculative fiction. Not a criticism, merely an observation.  Dybek’s story is a masterfully put together tale of existential urban terror, but it’s not something one could call fantasy or science fiction or even horror in a conventional sense. There is no supernatural horror; the only horrors present are those in the young boy’s dreams and those in his environment. Things kids face growing up in the inner city are more terrifying and horrible than anything in a scary movie. Horror Movie is by far the best thing I’ve read so far in the January 1976 issue, which isn’t saying anything by itself, so I’ll also point out that it’s better than a lot of the stuff that I liked from the June 1977 issue.  But man is it an unpleasant read…

“Why Basic?”

As mentioned before, I’m going to be DMing at a library as part of a summer reading program.  One thing that we were asked to do is come up with a short pitch for our games at a kick-off type meeting.  I came up with this one-sheet which I may end up using, that highlights a few reasons as to “why basic” as well as a very brief history* of B/X.  I got the retro fonts from Random Wizard’s new site.

Feel free to use this yourselves.  The fonts are non-commercial and the art is lifted straight from Moldvay, so needless to say, don’t try to make money off this.

Why Basic

*note: I left out the Arneson lawsuit because these kids probably won’t care, and I left out Mentzer because I hate BECMI.

Short Reviews – The Exiled, The Hunted, George Guthridge

The Exiled, The Hunted by George Guthridge appeared in the June 1977 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

The Exiled, The Hunted is one of those Jungle-Planet-with-Cat-People sword and planet type stories. Only the Cat People aren’t native to the Jungle Planet and they don’t use swords. And they’re not really Cat People. But given that they’re primitive tribal mammalians with tails, they fall enough into Cat People trope that it works well enough as shorthand.

Guthridge’s story involves an environmental mystery, an inter-species love triangle, giant mudbeasts and cat people (sorry for the reductive term, George, but that’s what I’m sticking with) who hunt them, all set against the tragic background of the native lost cause (but in space!). Viewed as a simple planet adventure with naked cat girls and telepathic monsters, it’s a fun enough read, but looked at as some kind of social commentary on science vs conservatism, it will make you squint your eyes and say “I see what you did there.”

Nassam is the chief of the tribe of cat people who have been exiled to a planet of swamps, mud and tasty tasty mudbeasts. Speaking of tasty, he’s in love with Leeani, a huntress of his tribe. The problem is, he’s married to Chola, a human woman who had joined up with Nassam and his people during the war that eventually led to their exile. The main reason Nassam married Chola is that the cat people share a mystical empathetic bond with their family, and humans are more adaptable and innovative than cat people, so Nassam thought it would be awesome to have human kitty kids, but that didn’t pan out.

Nassam is faced with the problem that his tribe is dying out, suffering sickness, and he is falling under the strain of both leadership and the mysterious illness that’s afflicting the kitty folk. He is ultimately forced to put his faith into his wife, who has always had faith in him, and move the tribe because holy cow, the planet they were exiled to is radioactive as crap! They end up having to make multiple moves, because while things get a bit better now and then, the problems don’t go away. The tribe begins to doubt their chief and resent his ailing human wife.

In addition to being tasty, the mudbeasts are telepathic. Nassam gets the drop on an exceptionally large mudbeast who promises to reveal the secrets of the swamp and how to survive the planet’s radiation if he’ll spare its life. Nassam promises to spare the creature and order his tribe to stop hunting the mudbeasts in exchange for the knowledge it imparts, but just having told him how he can save the tribe, the beast is killed by Leeani. Nassam getting all contemplative while Leeani complains that he let her kill sink into the endless muck kicks off the epilogue in which the sadder and wiser chief will guide his people, love his wife, and make do on the crappy mudball planet, and the dying beast ominously contemplates the future of the cat people who might someday become mud monsters as well to survive, or something.

There is a lot going on in The Exiled, The Hunted. It deals with race, generational issues, scientific acceptance (or perhaps even faith in science) and the potentially disastrous consequences of conservative reactionary objection.

Generational issues are only briefly touched on, so I’ll knock those out first. The cat people’s empathic ability is sort of the reverse of the typical mystic indian trope; instead of connecting with ancestors, elders connect with youth, vicariously enjoying the thrills of the young in their old age. Unfortunately, the young cat people have radical notions of privacy and don’t want grampa empathically watching them all the time.

Race is one of the biggest issues, and is at the forefront because of the inter-species love triangle. While Nassam is kinda meh about humans and kinda meh about his wife, Leeani actually hates them, so she double hates Chola for being a human and being the chieftain’s wife. I don’t remember if it explicitly says it, but I think that humans were the ones who drove the cat people off their planet in the first place. Chola is one of those exoticists, a gone native type, who for various reasons has decided that she identifies so much with the “other” that she joins up with them and wants to be one of them and even marries herself a chief! Needless to say, a lot of the catfolk besides just Leeani resent the whole ‘gone native’ thing, but what struck me was that while we’re shown the anti-human racism of the catfolk in a negative light, Chola’s fetishization of the exotic, noble and primitive cat warriors is presented uncritically. And her human (white) know how is what ultimately saves the tribe!

Ignorance of Science (and radiation) will destroy the tribe and only science (mystic mudbeast knowledge + Chola’s human know-how & reasoning) can save them. Leeani embodies conservatism in the story: she has regressive ideas about race (hates all humans), has regressive ideas about science (doubts the human with her plans to escape the radiation), and figuratively kills knowledge and progress when she kills the mudbeast that had just given Nassam the secrets of the swamp. Shame on Leeani! Shame on the doubters and racists!

The Exiled, The Hunted is not a bad story. In fact, it’s probably one of the best in the issue in terms of writing and storytelling. It’s just that if one looks just below the surface, the messaging is so strangely off-the-wall that you find yourself wondering just what Guthridge was really trying to say here. Probably symptomatic of being written in the mid-70s before mainstream progressivism went totally insane, but read today this story is one that seems like it wants to have both a progressive social and pro-science message while coming across as a story about how at least one catman came to understand the white (wo)man’s burden from his wife who helped him save his tribe. “Look, guys, we have to do what this human lady says, she knows more than us about things, so let’s take her word for it.” Sure, she was right, but still…

The Exiled, The Hunted is one of Guthridge’s earliest published works; noting that, the skill with which he writes is impressive, so if he only got better, he’s worth checking out.

This is the last of the stories from the June 1977 issue of F&SF; there is a fascinating essay by Asimov on the nature of and means of observing and detecting black holes which I do not feel qualified to comment on save that I find the Dr’s non-fiction far more enjoyable than his fiction.  Later this week, I’ll be picking up with more from the January 1976 issue.

The Privilege Of Not Caring


I don’t always have time to read Sarah Hoyt’s blog, but when I do, I’m always glad I did. Sorry my Castilian ancestors were always trying to eat your Portuguese ancestors!

Originally posted on According To Hoyt:

So, recently I’ve been getting really tired of the word “privilege” mostly because it’s being twisted to mean things it never meant.

I’d even be more or less okay with the idea that “white privilege” is not having to define yourself according to a race/ethnicity stereotypes.  It’s a stupid idea, but it’s at least understandable how people got there.

They got there through a total lack of empathy, is how they got there.  They assume that the pressures put on them to fit the pictures in people’s heads only exist because they tan an interesting color, have female parts or whatever.

This is a stunning lack of empathy because in fact, the pictures in people’s heads are there because they’re human and the subject they are examining must fall into a pattern of heuristics that allows them to make a quick decision.

In other words, particularly when evaluating other humans…

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Short Reviews – A Princess in Distress, or Anna and the Thing, Abraham Strongjohn

This review is of the original short format version of “A Princess in Distress, or Anna and the Thing” which was not featured in the July 1972 Issue of Argosy. Subsequently the story was fleshed out into a novel-length work, though its authorship is dubious.

This is a particularly strange work; Abraham Strongjohn’s writings seem mostly intent on capturing and embodying all of the tropes of pulp fantasy and science fiction without delving into the introspective navel gazing of genre deconstruction or -god forbid- satire, so one can not be entirely sure what was going through his mind when he wrote “A Princess in Distress, or Anna and the Thing”.

In this ribald tale, we see some influences as diverse as Anne McAffrey, Andre Norton, George Guthridge and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, but in a work that finds itself not quite at home within the confines of typical genre fiction. This story, like so many others, features a dashing space pirate, a beautiful princess (a cat-girl, no less), and an unknown alien creature whose physical inhumanity is slowly established in contrast with his personable nature that is also in contrast with the aforementioned Space Pirate, who is, while classically handsome, a total boor to be rooted against as the beautiful princess flees from his clutches.

We see the story from multiple perspectives, and thus we understand the story through the lenses of our prejudices in favor of certain types of character and what we know of the conventions of typical pulp adventures. Therefore, our expectations are built up and then toppled as the story takes its twists and turns as Anna is hunted by the Pirate and the Pirate is hunted by the Thing. So often we want to root for dashing space pirates, because of their ‘folk hero’ quality in popular fiction, but Strongjohn reminds us that while Drake was a dashing knight and Kidd a mere victim of circumstance, the pirate is more often than not a cur and a human trafficker.

The princess has forced down the pirate’s ship, though the pirate will never admit that his googoo eyes for her let her get the better of him. The princess would rather try her luck on the surface of the jungle planet than fall into the rapacious hands of the pirate. And the inhabitants of the planet? Well…

I’m not a fan of one-liner endings in Science Fiction, and I’ll admit that the last line of several Asimov stories have killed what little suspense and enjoyment they managed to hold for me, but in this case the reveal is far too good not to share. (Spoilers!) Whatever faux pas committed by the princess through body language or other-means (we’re never quite sure) in her gesture of supplication, the response elicited is golden: “You’ll forgive me if I decline your offer, princess, but my species are egg-layers.”