Jay Barnson, who has stories with us in issues 4 and 5, was interviewed at Castalia House by Scott Cole on Monday. You can read it here.
The interview largely focuses on Barnson’s work as a game developer, so if you dig vidya, you should definitely check it out!
At some point, I’ll be posting a review of Frayed Knights, an indie FPRPG that Jay made with his Rampant Games collaborators, so be looking forward to that, too.
Random synergy can be a great thing.
Last night, for index card D&D, I created a mech pilot character class whose starting item was a mech. Now, the mech was OP as hell, had ridiculous attack powers and was really hard to destroy. The catch, however, was that being a mech, it could only fit down certain corridors. It pretty much had to be abandoned in the first room of the dungeon. One of the other random items I’d made up for the dungeon deck was a 20 ft. Vibro-blade. It did 4d6+8 damage, except it could only be used by giants, high-level ogres, and mechs; it specifically counted as a “useless item” (certain classes benefited from acquisition or destruction of said useless items) if no one was present who could use it. It was a joke item that couldn’t really be used. Except it was used.
One of the players had written up an item of “Eat Me” Cookies that would triple your size. I found them. Of course the catch was that, much like the mech, you couldn’t leave the room you were in because you were too big and you could only shrink by crying or using the “Drink Me” Potion (which got smashed when it was dropped when people were trying to get the roaches from the Cardboard Garden brushed off of them). But being tripled in size would clearly fulfill the “giant” criteria.
We were experimenting with new boss rules this time, and had a path that specifically led to a “Boss” that was on the other side of a crocodile filled moat. So, we had the whole party carry the 20 ft Vibro-blade, used it to bridge the moat, pulled it across behind us, I ate the cookies and used it to fight the Ogre King, a 15’ tall 70HP badass. I nat 20ed him, and knocked him down almost 50 points.
Except, awesome as that was, in the end, what really did him in was a spell I’d written that someone else had found and cast, Derrik’s Daring Dweomer. It was a high casting cost spell that would either severely hurt the caster, turn enemies into metal, turn enemies into kittens, cause the magic user to explode and do stupid amounts of damage to all enemies (20 dmg for 100), or a couple other weird things. It turned the Ogre King into a 1hp kitten that I had to smash with the Vibro-blade so that I could cry and return to my normal size.
I’m only halfway through Tarzan at the Earth’s Core so this will only be a half-review, but I still wanted to talk about it.
The story itself is a bit of an aimless mess that’s only held together by Burroughs’ ability to make every scene and tableau he’s writing completely awesome.
The setup and megaplot is just an excuse to have Tarzan in an exotic dinosaur filled jungle: One of the characters from the Pellucidar series is in trouble and has radioed a distress call. A wealthy American is determined to investigate the hollow earth, which, if filled with jungles, means that Tarzan is the ideal person to track down and bring along. After lengthy preparations and a healthy dose of German engineering, they go off together to the north pole in a giant airship and find the entrance to Pellucidar and get hopeless lost in the jungles within, because this is, after all, a Tarzan novel.
-Tarzan goes to check out the jungle and gets lost because you can’t navigate the hollow earth using normal means (sunrise/sunset & the stars)
-The guys who go out to look for Tarzan get lost and attacked by savage animals.
-The rich American finds the airship again and goes out in his plane to try to find either Tarzan or the search party; except that since this is a Tarzan novel, his airplane is attacked by a pteranodon and he crashes in the jungle. But he does find a cute jungle girl!
So, a few things I’d like to note:
-Burroughs goes to great lengths to try to make Pellucidar’s alien aspects relevant to the story and how the characters are able to function in the hollow earth. The perpetual sun is disorienting, and even Tarzan has a hard time dealing with both perpetual noon and a lack of horizons (the landscape gently curves upward in all directions).
-The airship’s cook could easily be written off as a racist caricatures, but I think it’s interesting that the African tribesmen that Tarzan brings with him (in Africa, Tarzan has a game range and is on friendly terms with both the men and animals on it) all speak perfect, if simple, English, while the black cook from the American south is the one with the thick vernacular accent. This is likely intentional, in the way that Twain’s attempt to faithfully recreate several Missouri, Arkansas, southern Illinois, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi accents was intentional.
-In a lot of ways, the roles of Jana and Jason are a mirror of Tarzan and Jane’s, the savage girl met by the civilized man, except Jana’s a bit more likable than Jane and the pair are a bit more on equal footing – while Jana knows and understands Pellucidar and can survive there on her own, Jason is capable and a crack shot with his gun, which certainly evens the odds in many cases. In another way in which this subverts the criticisms of the colonialist nature of pulp, it’s Jana who teaches Jason her language so they can communicate rather than the other way around. It is pretty implicitly an interracial coupling (the people in Pellucidar strike me as Amerind inspired), and it’s Jason who’s made to look like a heel for even letting that cause doubt to creep into his mind.
-One of the most important aspects of Lord of the Rings in context of Appendix N is that it’s one of the few works on the list that features an adventuring “party”, but it’s certainly not the only. For a stretch, here, Tarzan, Tar-gash (a talking ape from a Pellucidarian tribe slightly more advanced than the one which raised Tarzan), and Thoar (a Pellucidarian tribesman who, as coincidence would have it, is Jana’s brother) adventure in the jungles together, hunting, fighting, and searching for the airship.
-Back to Jana. Jana is great example of how to do a female character in a pulpy adventure romance. She’s brave and confident and capable – when we’re introduced to her, she’s holding her own fairly well, considering that she’s been outrunning four plainsmen who are trying to capture her – so much so that they’re begging their leader to give up; she’s just not worth the trouble she’s been giving them! She’s feminine, but not totally demure, accepts the man’s help when it’s needed and given, but able to show that she’s willing to walk if he’s gonna take her for granted.
Every once in awhile, you’ll hear the complaint that lower level D&D characters don’t feel like the heroic characters from pulp adventures on account of how fragile they are. The low HP means that a couple of good hits will kill those lower level characters, whether in fights or to traps or even something as ignominious as falling down a flight of stairs.
One of my counters to this is that most pulp heroes would be at the lower end of mid-level, contra to what is suggested in many of those old articles where Gary and friends would stat up Cugel or Eric John Stark as being well into double digits with massive pools of HP to prevent low-level PCs from being able to meet and kill these characters just because they were there and they could (though I’m sure they did).
Another bug-bear of oldschool games is the saving throw, particularly in save or die situations. Why should a character with all of that HP be insta-killed?! It’s just not fair! A character who can take 8 full-on sword wounds shouldn’t be able to die just because he was bitten by a snake or had a rock fall on his head! Besides, that’s entirely unpulpy, right?!
Well, take this from Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, at a point in his career where he’s probably level 27 and has a gorillion hit points:
Tarzan remained very quiet. He did not wish to frighten it away for he realized that one of them must be the prey of the carnivore sneaking upon them, but if he expected the thag to be frightened he soon realized his error in judgment for, uttering low grumblings, the great bull pawed the earth with a front foot, and then, lowering his massive horns, gored it angrily, and the ape-man knew that he was working his short temper up to charging pitch; nor did it seem that this was to take long for already he was advancing menacingly to the accompaniment of thunderous bellowing. His tail was up and his head down as he broke into the trot that precluded the charge.
The ape-man realized that if he was ever struck by those massive horns or that heavy head, his skull would be crushed like an eggshell.
The dizzy spinning that had been caused by the first stretching of the rawhide to his weight had lessened to a gentle turning motion; so that sometimes he faced the thag and sometimes in the opposite direction. The utter helplessness of his position galled the ape-man and gave him more concern than any consideration of impending death. From childhood he had walked hand in hand with the Grim Reaper and he had looked upon death in so many forms that it held no terror for him. He knew that it was the final experience of all created things, that it must as inevitably come to him as to others and while he loved life and did not wish to die, its mere approach induced within him no futile hysteria. But to die without a chance to fight for life was not such an end as Tarzan of the Apes would have chosen. And now, as his body slowly revolved and his eyes were turned away from the charging thag, his heart sank at the thought that he was not even to be vouchsafed the meager satisfaction of meeting death face to face.
Tarzan, with all of his HP was forced to make save-vs-death against some kind of charging inner-earth dire oryx. His saving throw numbers are probably really low at this point, and he probably could’ve made it with anything but a nat 1, but it was still going to be a case of instant-death regardless of how many hit points he has.
This ties back into the game theory that HP doesn’t represent actual wounds but exhaustion and the character’s ability to fight on under pressure in extreme circumstance. Of course, you also might say that it would not be very pulpy to fail your saving throw and be instantly killed, but D&D is a game, and without a genuine sense of risk, your game can end up in a boring slump where everyone knows that everyone is going to live no matter what, so why bother faking the suspense? And in those cases where your life is on the line AND YOU MAKE IT, how much more awesome is it? It makes those times when you could’ve lost your character but didn’t all the more special.
I’ve had more than a couple of writers ask me if Cirsova would be interested in buying previously published stories to reprint in Cirsova. Up to this point, my answer has been “No” for several reasons.
- First, one of the selling points of Cirsova is that we are offering new and exclusive content that can’t be found anywhere else.
- Second, if a story has been published elsewhere, especially if it has been self-published, that puts a new issue of Cirsova in competition with that work in a way that may not be beneficial to either Cirsova or the author.
- Third, it would not make sense for us to pay the same rates for a non-exclusive story as an exclusive story. I want to keep Cirsova paying semi-pro rates, but I can’t currently justify those rates for reprint stories while paying the same as I would for exclusivity.
Still, I’ve had a lot of inquiries about reprints and have been brainstorming on the matter. I have a couple thoughts:
- A reprinted story has less “value” to Cirsova than an exclusive story, so it would make sense to pay a lower rate.
- A reprinted story would require a different agreement between Cirsova and the Authors of the story. (i.e., we would not be purchasing first rights, exclusivity, etc., just whatever necessary mechanical rights to include them in an anthology).
- It would make the most sense for us to do separate issues/anthologies, keeping Cirsova Magazine a Semi-Pro market featuring original content while creating a new, offshoot title to showcase reprints, a sort of “best of indie” meets “in case you missed it”.
Given that we’re in the midst of an anti-gatekeeper movement, I find it ironic that I’m essentially in a position where I’m asking people “Is my gatekeeping enough of a selling point that I should consider this?”
At least from an author’s perspective, the answer may be yes – the belief that they can reach a wider readership with their work via Cirsova is a real thing (even if I can hardly believe it myself!), and bringing great stories to the masses is something I’m passionate about. And enough authors have approached me about reprints that I’ve begun to seriously consider.
I put our current regular readership at roughly 150. If we get 100 more yeses than nos, I’ll whip up a framework for a new Cirsova annual spin-off.
Note: This title would have no bearing on what would be acquired for Cirsova HF&SF; it would be a wholly new publication under the Cirsova “banner”. Think of it like a “Tops In Science Fiction” vs. Planet Stories proper, only we’d be reprinting other stories rather than those featured in Cirsova HF&SF.
The other night, I finished Robert Kroese’s new Rex Nihilo book, Aye, Robot.
While I enjoyed the first one, it did push me to the limits of my tolerance for spoof and parody in SFF – Starship Grifters got away with a lot I wouldn’t normally forgive because Kroese’s such a damn good and damn funny writer.
Starship Grifters’ sequel, Aye, Robot, was much more satire than parody. With the basic level Star Wars stuff out of the way from the first book, we’re left with a much more interesting and less predictable story. All of the top notch humor and brilliant writing from the first book was still there, but its move into unfamiliar territory with its narrative made Aye, Robot even more enjoyable.
Rex is still a Zapp Branniganesque scamp, but he has a few moments of real genius shine through; enough that one might question if some of his mannerisms aren’t just an elaborate act to throw people off. The secondary characters of Boggs and Donny were far less useless than the companions from the first book, so while entertaining in some of their antics, they helped keep Aye, Robot from being another “one sane man” (or one sane robot, in Sasha’s case) story. Even Vlaak managed to be a bit interesting as a character this time around (as opposed to merely a flamboyant cross between Darth Vader and Falco).
In short, while I liked Starship Grifters, Aye, Robot was a much better and much more enjoyable book, even if the humor was not quite as machine-gun-like as in the previous.
I was also happy that Kroese included his Pepper Melange novella, The Yanthus Prime Job, as a bonus. I’d gotten an ebook of it, but honestly, I probably would’ve never gotten around to reading it had it not been in print. While still including some of Kroese’s brilliant humor, YPJ was a much more straight-forward sci-fi heist story, which I liked a lot. Pepper is a tough SF dame in the older mold – smart, clever, quick thinking on her feet, and creative in her approaches to problems, rather than a 5’2″ war machine in pleather. She was one of the better parts in Starship Grifters and took a lot of the burden off Sasha from being the one competent character, so it was fun to see her in her own story. FWIW, The Yanthus Prime Job is a lot closer to the sort of fiction that I, myself, am looking to buy for Cirsova than either Starship Grifters or Aye, Robot (even though they were both great). YPJ shows me that Kroese’s talents go way beyond clever wordplay interspersed with his nod-giving action SF; in a fairly silly setting, he’s able to tell a straight-forward but intense story that showcases his short fiction chops.
I’m already looking forward to the next installment in the Nihilo-verse, but I think I’ll be looking into more of Kroese’s fiction before then, when I get a chance.
Also, thanks for putting a ray gun in Rex’s hand on the cover. He looked kinda weird just standing there hands- on the last one.
*: I backed the Kickstarter for a softcover of the first book. I think that Robert may have sent me a copy of Aye, Robot for having shilled for him (unpaid, of course) on Twitter. If that’s the case, thanks, Robert, I really appreciated it!
With our own open submission period fast approach, and in light of Corey McCleery’s post on the short story he’s writing for a Superversive anthology, I feel that I need to issue some clarifications on just what it is we’re looking for as a magazine that has had the attention of the Pulp Revolution.
First, I feel it’s important to point out that Cirsova was doing what Cirsova was doing prior to folks talking about a Pulp Revolution, and we intent do continue doing what we’ve been doing regardless of what directions either the folks involved in the Pulp Revolution movement do or what the Superversive movement does in response.
A lot of folks have said “I’ve got this great idea for X where Y happens in Z; there will be plenty of Q and T!” and I’ve absolutely encouraged people to write them.
But the thing is, a Pulp is much more than its pitch. A lot of pulp stories, when you try to distill their plots down to a sentence or two, come across as the wildest, most off-the-wall gonzo nonsense you can dream up. Except when you actually read the stories, they’re not only internally consistent, they often take themselves and the wild situations therein fairly seriously. While there might be some humor, the elements in the stories are usually not played for laughs. And I think that’s part of where we differ from some of the “Retro-Pulp”/”New Pulp” stuff, in that we’re not using the aesthetic for kitsch or playing it for laughs. It’s a very difficult concept to get across. It’s also why I think it’s worthwhile to show by example, which is why I strongly recommend folks read the pulps (particularly those that I’ve reviewed, because they are literally the context I’ve been using and measuring other stories against) and read previous issues of Cirsova to get an idea of just what I’m looking for.
Now, why did I bring up McCleery’s post?
Well, in addition to trying to define Superversive in his post, and trying to show that they are not mutually exclusive, he gives a pitch for his story that he is advertising as being a Superversive Pulp story:
It’s about a man, a man confronted with the injustices of a tyrannical usurper trying to slay the woman he loves, and to defend her, he becomes something greater than he is, using self-discipline and training to go from a plain warrior to someone of unmatched prowess. He’s morally straight and kind, but has courage in the face of incredible adversity, won’t shirk from trouble because it’s, well, trouble, and also refuses to do the wrong thing when that would make life easier, but compromise his conscience. Right there, that checks off two boxes listed above (Aspiring/Inspiring and Heroic).
He travels the world I have made, sees wonders, sees beauties unearthly. He goes into the most dangerous of places, and grows stronger for it.
He is guided by virtue, and eventually meets up with some other characters, many of whom are morally questionable. Through their interaction with him, these characters become more selfless, virtuous, and heroic themselves, and go from morally grey to heroes (there’s the Aspiring/Inspiring). In this world, there’s a clear line denoting what is good and bad, and that the evil usurper is bad, a cutthroat despot who isn’t scared to shed innocent blood (and she does this out of envy and desire for power, not because she was abused as a child or was a psychopath). Good is good, bad is bad, and while the hero isn’t %100 good, he aspires to be good (thus, the Virtuous box is checked).
And ultimately, the hero fights to restore the throne to the rightful ruler, and does so. He is not a pawn of chance, incapable of making his own decisions. He decides, and those choices have consequences. His actions have an effect, and he doesn’t react to the world, but proactively acts (thus fulfilling the Decisive category). And lastly, I’m not deconstructing ideals of heroism or other healthy cultural paradigms (thus fulfilling the Non-Subversive category).
So, I’m writing a Superversive story, one that will be published in a magazine.
Here’s the catch. It’s being published in Astounding Frontiers, Superversive SF’s pulp revival magazine. The description above is accurate, but focuses on the Superversive themes, not the pulp.
My story is about a soldier, charged with guarding the elegant and demure Space Princess, scion of a star (She kind of glows). He teams up with a stoic yet wise Void-wielding pseudo-Buddhist attack monk lizard alien man, a rough-and-tumble yet oddly maternal cyborg techno-necromancer (who’s art is drawn from Daoist philosophy), a giant crustaceanoid barbarian who’s bulletproof and very violent, and the crustaceanoid barbarian’s love, a sorceress insectoid-alien who is refined and demure (as refined and demure as an insectoid lady of high breeding level can be).
He flies in a ship that sails through the ether, and goes from a soldier to a sorcerer-knight who wields the ether and the Void, among other powers. He breaks into the vault of the imperial sorcerers to plunder its knowledge, and fights the horrendous beast that lurks in the heart of a sun. There’s travelling through the myriad avenues of death, Way Cool armor forged from the substanceless Void, action and heroism aplenty.
My story has battles on space ships, duels to the death, a classic romance, and a Space Princess, ethereal and beautiful. It has sorcery used alongside laser cannons and futuristic technology, where a battle can take place with scrambler beams or ether blades. Settings include the deadly library of sorcery, an ancient temple, and ruins of an M.C. Escher palace that is suspended in the heart of a hollow sun. It looks at genre distinctions and laughs in their face.
Now, a couple of things about this. This is a pitch. It gives you an idea of what the story will be about, but there’s no way to know whether this story is going to be any good or not. Also, that’s a LOT to try to cram into a short story*. Awhile back, I made a one sentence pitch for Schuyler Hernstrom’s The First American as an example of how it could be done (“Lizardmen stole a barb caveman’s dame, so he goes to a wizard who is an astronaut who gene-splices him and gives him a shotgun so he can rescue his dame from the lizardmen”), and that was a novella length work into which all of they X, Y, and Z were crammed. Another thing, I don’t know what deal McCleery has with the Superversives for their publication, so this is in regards to our publication, not theirs or anyone else’s, but as a general rule, unless you’ve finished writing your story, submitted it to me, and I’ve paid you for it, don’t say “here is the story I’m writing that will be published in Cirsova”, regardless of whether I’ve told you that your elevator pitch sounds awesome. That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s something I felt worth pointing out.
But back to pitches. What sounds great in a pitch needs to work out on the page. We’re not specifically looking for gonzo or how crazy and wild you can write a story. There may be a mistaken notion about the Pulp Revolution that to them Pulp is like some kind of Mountain Dew commercial, skiing down a mountain, chased by laser wolves, and screaming “PULP!” A lot of us make joke about that sort of thing, but that’s more about the bants than it is the serious business of writing and critiquing stoires. As for Cirsova, we are not the silly magazine that publishes silly and extreme stories for the sake of silliness and extremity. We’re looking for GOOD stories that are well written and have the potential to be entertaining to readers who enjoy action and romance. Ultimately, that is a far stronger consideration for whether we will acquire a story than whether it falls into a Superversive rubric or a Pulp rubric or a Pulp Revolution rubric, straw or otherwise.
*:Note – Corey’s pointed out that his pitch is for a serial; this is stuff that you CAN work into something longer, like a serial format. For our own submission purposes, since we only take serial works on special basis and by request only (please do not ask), we recommend only cramming in as much as you can reasonably work into 5000-7500 words without spreading your story too thin.