I’m reading The Swordsman of Mars, my 5th planetary romance by Otis Adelbert Kline, and the 4th in his Dr. Morgan series. As with all of the Doc Morgan stories, we are briefly introduced to the concept of telepathic exchange of minds across space and time–a process which he discovered with the help of Lal Vak, a Martian scientist living a million years in Earth’s past, which allows for individuals with similar enough physiques and thought patterns are able to transfer personalities with the help of their devices.
Dr. Morgan finds bored or down on their luck highly capable individuals and sends them off to implausible adventures on alien worlds, with the promise of thrills and romance and assurances that they’ll probably do just fine once they get there and learn the language.
It’s a silly concept, one which Kline even lampshades in the author’s foreword of the second Dr. Morgan book, The Prince of Peril:
Dr. Morgan had worked on telepathy for many years in his spare time, when he was in practice; but on his retirement, he tried a different track. “I had to amend the theory,” he explained. “I decided that it would be necessary to build a device which would pick up and amplify thought waves. And even this would have failed had my machine not caught the waves projected by another machine, which another man had built to amplify and project them.”
Now I had been a devotee of imaginative fiction for many years, and had often thought of turning my hand to writing it. I prided myself on having a better than usual imagination; yet, I did not think of the implications of the theory of telepathy when Dr. Morgan told me that the man who built the thought-projector was on Mars. While I deferred to no one in my fondness for Edgar Rice Burroughs’s stories of John Carter and others on Barsoom, I was well aware of the fact that what we knew of the planet Mars made his wonderful civilization on that planet quite impossible. I said as much, going into facts and figures.
“Of course, we won’t really know for sure about the exact conditions there unless we land on Mars. But still we know enough to make Burroughs’s Mars probability zero,” I concluded.
Dr. Morgan nodded. “Entirely correct,” he said. “There is no such civilization on Mars.”
He then explained his own incredulity when his machine picked up the thoughts of a man who identified himself as a human being— one Lal Vak, a Martian scientist and psychologist. But Lal Vak was no less incredulous when Dr. Morgan identified himself as a human being and scientist of Earth. For Lal Vak was certain that there could be no human civilization on Earth, and cited facts and figures to prove it.
Interestingly enough, with the exception of the third Venus book, the Dr. Morgan books have all been prequels to the first one–the second Venus book recounts the adventures of a character who hooked up with Grandon for the climactic battle at the end of Planet of Peril (a “you wouldn’t believe what it took for me to get here in time, remind me to tell you someday!”), and this first Mars book I’m reading is actually the account of Harry Thorne, the guy Dr. Morgan tells Grandon about at the start of Planet as his first successful experiment with Lal Vak.
And it is the task of this first successful experiment to stop the first failed experiment. The first guy Doc Morgan sent to Mars, Frank Boyd, turned out to be an asshole and set himself up as a strongman to take over the world.
In barely more time than it took to you to read this post, Thorne gets sent to Mars, where he is attacked by a stirge-like insect, which he quickly dispatches… however his loss of blood has made him weak, so when Lal Vak brings him back into town and he’s bumped into by an arrogant oaf who demands satisfaction–he falls faint before the first sword-blow! The engineer of his disgrace? None other than Frank Boyd, the man Thorne was sent to stop! And because he de facto lost the duel, he may not honorably challenge him again and is bound to accept any and all humiliations that Boyd may subject him to!
That’s as far as I’ve got, but if it’s like any of Kline’s other stories, it’ll be cram-packed with sword-fight, wild monsters, and hot action dames.
Steve DuBois posted an excellent review of our Eldritch Earth issue; I suggest you go and read it.
He brings up a few interesting points:
“I have found cause for gripe about a lot of fiction that’s labelled ‘Lovecraftian’—the biggest being that it is not particularly Lovecraftian at all. To a large extent, ‘Lovecraftian’ falls into the same rut as Steampunk, only instead of gluing gears to everything, it’s tentacles.” [editor’s note; this was quoted from my intro to the issue]
This begs the question: what IS Lovecraftian fiction? For me, the defining characteristic is a cosmic horror born of the sudden realization that humanity is not, in fact, at the top of the food chain; indeed, that from a universal perspective, we’re not even insects. Lovecraft posits that entities exist whose motives are not exactly malevolent, but so far beyond our understanding that to even encounter them is a sanity-shattering experience.
Bluntly, I don’t know that this leaves much room for the heroic. I don’t think Lovecraft’s stories would have been improved if Randolph Carter had been handed an SMG and he’d started mowing down shoggoths. New Pulp is a celebration of human ability and potential. Lovecraft’s message is “your abilities are irrelevant in a cosmic context, and you are potentially something’s dinner.” I don’t think, in short, that heroic fiction can be made Lovecraftian by gluing some tentacles to it.
In many ways, yes, the stories in the issue weren’t Lovecraftian in either the modern or the traditional sense. To an extent, you could accuse some of the stories of “gluing tentacles” to heroic fantasy and calling it “Lovecraftian” and not be too terribly far off from the truth. However, one of the reasons why I was willing to pursue this direction and showcase it in Cirsova is because so much in the current field of “Lovecraftian” fiction is either a deconstruction of Lovecraft and his themes through identitarian lenses on one end and modern pastiches of detectives with guns vs. Cthulhu on the other end. I looked at the project as a reconstruction of Burroughsian (though in practice Howardian) heroic tropes and, in the case of Misha Burnett’s and S.H. Mansouri’s stories, a reconstruction of the identity-based horror.
The stories work least well when they try to transplant Robert E. Howard to the Triassic, with brawny iron-age heroes mowing down scads of enemy henchmen and advancing towards boss fights. Additionally, the whole Eldritch Earth concept is still in an early stage developmentally, and as with other such experiments (notably Baen’s Grantville) there are times when the authors involved seem to be proceeding from fundamentally incompatible concepts of how the story’s world works. I can just about buy that humanity was designed as a slave race by Mind Flayers, but what’s up with all these other late-Pleistocene mammals popping up all over the place? The horses? The dogs? The tapirs? Or even Cretaceous critters such as birds, for that matter? These aren’t story-killers, but they’re anti-atmospheric and destructive of reader immersion, and the Eldritch Earth stories will become more fun for readers once the authorial community leaves the tropes of iron-age Earth behind.
This is an interesting critique, in part because he goes on to praise Sky Hernstrom as “unmistakably right as an author of New Pulp”, but also because he is right that in the early phases of this shared universe, there is some conflict of what everyone’s vision is. I did not impose an editorial hand to maintain a consistent sense of world-building, as I didn’t feel that was my job. In those cases, such as The First American and Beyond the Great Divide where there was conflicting information about the nature of the Slagborn or the stories that included but gave very different impressions of Deodanth, I decided to let the stories stand on their own rather than try to pick which story was canon and demand the other authors try to shape theirs to better fit that canon.
I do hope that the Eldritch Earth project has some life left in it, because I think it has produced some spectacular early tales. We have a new Darla tale in our current issue and will have a brand-new tale of the Plateau of Leng from Cirsova regular Donald J. Uitvlugt later this year.
This is absolutely the sort of feedback that we’re looking for when we say “Hey leave us a review!” I mean, yeah, a couple lines and some stars on Amazon helps us a ton, too, but this is excellent, actionable stuff that lets us know what we’re doing right, where we can improve, and what direction we should take the magazine in the future.
Last week, folks downloaded over 400 free copies of Cirsova #5! We were briefly #1 in our Amazon Free Stuff category.
Hopefully, a few of you will leave us a review to let us know what you thought! Amazon reviews go a long way to help us out and require very little effort.
Also, Issue 7 has been out in the wild for about 3 weeks now. If you have had a chance to read it, please let us know what you thought!
Finally, just a reminder, you can still vote Schuyler Hernstrom’s The First American or Spencer Hart’s Death on the Moon for the Planetary Awards and S.H. Mansouri’s Beyond the Great Divide for the Ursa Major Awards!
So far, the DCEU has been pretty terrible.
- Man of Steel was an overly serious and pompous trainwreck that fundamentally misunderstood the character of Superman and managed to make the two plus hours of non-stop action dreary and tiresome.
- Batman vs. Superman had a few decent moments of pathos that were tied more to our memories of Chris Nolan’s Batman than anything the movie actually gave us, but those were largely mired in a poorly paced mess of a plot that relied on a number of assumptions and the feeling that we’d “missed something”. Plus making Gotham Metropolis’ Jersey City was a strange choice.
- Suicide Squad was another trainwreck that felt like it should’ve been the second movie in its own franchise and was edited so haphazardly that I think they were going for a Tarantino feel but without an ounce of finesse; fans cheered it against critics because a) they’re fans, b) everyone hates critics, even when they’re right on occasion, and c) Harley Quinn fangirls & boys.
- Wonder Woman was heralded as brilliant because it was the first entry into the franchise that was a competently done film.
- After watching creepo Ezra Miller try to pressure an uncomfortable and embarrassed looking Gal Gadot into saying his Smash-the-Patriarchy BS during a promo interview, I figure I’ll wait until my gym picks up Justice League to watch it.
- The fact that they’ve hired Ava DuVernay to direct New Gods suggests that WB & DC are entirely unserious about the prospect of making good movies in the immediate future.
Now for my dangerous claim: the one bright spot of the DCEU was Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. It was the one genuinely interesting thing that the films did in terms of storytelling, direction, and acting. His Luthor was not without problems, of course—the biggest being that his character was named Lex Luthor.
The main complaint I hear about him is “He’s not Lex Luthor; he’s not my Lex Luthor,” and no, he’s really not. Which is why it’s a damn shame they call him Luthor, because now you CANNOT do anything else with the character. Lex Luthor is usually portrayed as either a criminal mastermind, a mad scientist, or evil corporate billionaire with tons of resources at his disposal. In most cases, he’s set himself up as untouchable, and in fan favorite portrayals (StAS, L&C:NAoS) he’s often a cool, calculating and collected character—quite the opposite of Eisenberg’s portrayal. You need that aloof, powerful and untouchable nature to remain an ongoing villain to Superman. Yet the Luthor portrayed in BvS is a fantastic Batman villain and far more interesting than your typical portrayal of Luthor.
At its core, Batman vs. Superman is a story about three men who are living in the shadows cast by their absent fathers*. Their fathers have shaped who they are, what they do, what they believe, and they are constantly trying to live up to ideals that they think will make the ghosts in their memories proud. Eisenberg’s Luthor is shattered by this pressure. He’s the broken mirror that’s held up to Batman and Superman; could they turn into this broken and groveling man who is desperate to make Daddy proud? Many times in his adventures, Bruce Wayne comes close to this; he approaches the edge and often has be pulled back by his friends and loved ones. He sees himself, to a degree, in a character like Eisenberg’s Luthor, and it terrifies him. He wears the mask of the happy playboy billionaire, but every day inside he’s asking himself “Am I making my father proud?” And it makes Bats and the folks watching him wonder “How is he going to avoid ending up like that? Can he? How similar they are!” Like I said, A GREAT BATMAN VILLAIN!
Now, I understand why a lot of people don’t like him, I really do! And I agree, he’s NOT Lex Luthor, and his character should NOT have been called Lex Luthor. Calling him Lex prejudiced fans against character and ensured that this intriguing villain, great in his own right, cannot be used or explored further in future. It’s a shame, because really he was the one worthwhile thing the DCEU gave us.
*:One aspect that sets Supes & Bats apart from Luthor in the film is their love for their mother—something which Luthor is not shown to have—which brings them together against him at the movie’s climax, but that’s like an essay unto itself, right there!
I don’t have a better name for my current game yet, and it ultimately may not take the direction implied in the name (though the mass combat game I ran two weeks ago did serve as a “distant prologue”).
I’m experimenting with a dynamic exploration-focused dungeon, one which begins… almost empty!
The design concept ties into adventure hook that got the party there:
There’s a small town celebrating its founding day, which is normally a smaller affair, but this is the anniversary of the end of the Wizard War. There’s a stone marker outside of town on a hill, and it’s an “historical site” which Wizard War nerds might want to check out on the 500th anniversary. Between the end of the Wizard War and the founding of the town, there was a “rain of dirt” (possibly a volcano, possibly magic upheaval) that buried whatever was there. Folks didn’t want the spot to be totally forgotten, so they put up a plaque. The party found the ruin because a child playing on the hill fell down a sinkhole.
The complex is actually a small buried temple built on top of a previously buried monastery that was built over a series of crypts to seal up some of the residual evils of a Lieutenant of the Ultralich who was defeated on that spot. Below that are caverns and who knows what; I haven’t even fully keyed the crypt area.
The top level is mostly empty, stripped bare, and even the purpose is somewhat of a mystery until the players find the chapel. There are a few collapsed tunnels at the edges of the map, and a room with bats indicating that the room is near the surface of the hillside. Eventually, these tunnels may become excavated as more adventurers and possibly clergymen and historians begin to explore the upper ruins. These empty rooms will serve as future sites of minor archaeological base-camps or refuges for vagrants and bandits. But for now, the party has the ruins to themselves.
I remembered how much I hated the Bruce Heard game I was in because, despite all of the cool fair and carnival stuff around, I didn’t get a chance to interact with it, so if my players decide to do some carnival games, I’ll let them. We’re going to Millennium Fair it. I’m also allowing them to create a bit of the town themselves, picking what they need to have in the town, letting them name places and people. We’ve already ended up with an awesome tavern keeper named Crazy Jim, whose specialty is Owlbear stew. Over the course of the evening, it was established that Crazy Jim is a retired adventurer of ridiculous level.
My DM (a player in this game) is on a Delicious in Dungeon kick, and I’m happy to oblige. Turns out, the secret to making top-notch Owlbear Stew: you gotta make em good and angry. Most animals if they’re all riled up, the meat can get tough and gamey. But Owlbears are different—when an owlbear gets mad, their muscles get all loosened up, like they’ve done a bunch of stretches and then gotten a massage; makes em move all fluid-like. So, if you want the best Owlbear meat, you’ve gotta get em real good and pissed off before you kill them—the meat’ll just fall off the bones.
So, for now, my dungeon chef is contenting himself with frying up centipedes and mice with the wild green onions he’s picked.
Interestingly, my three players have all opted to run Thieves. They reason that this way they’ll always be able to be sneaky and at least one of them will always get a backstab. They have a fighter and Halfling for hirelings; we’ll see how all of this will work out. The halfling’s probably better at hiding from things than they are at this point, but there’s been very little to hide from so far.
The downside of everyone playing thieves, I can’t use this as an opportunity to really go for broke on sticking to the book on Moldvay magic rules. I went out of my way to stock the dungeon with scrolls to reward someone who picked “Read Magic” as their one first level spell. There’s an NPC elf lady whose spell is read magic, but the party didn’t pick her as a hireling, so she very well may end up as part of a rival adventuring party.
The second level of the dungeon, once they reach it, has two mini-side dungeons off of it. One is a workshop with a few high-loot-value mechanical monstrosities that are terrifyingly out of depth. The other is the original monastery’s library, which has been taken over by Aranea.
A lot of the treasure will be hidden in the crypt below the 2nd level, but opening the vault to the crypt will trigger some stuff that will turn much of level 2 “active”. This could upset anyone trying to set up shop on the first floor, definitely a corner of the 2nd floor, and maybe even the rest of the town.
We’ve been running a promotion on twitter, where for every 100 retweets, we’ll make a back issue of Cirsova free.
We’re making #5 free first, because it contains both The First American (Schuyler Hernstrom) and Beyond the Great Divide (S.H. Mansouri), which are finalists for the Planetary Awards and the Ursa Major Awards respectively.
So, download the issue, read those stories, and go vote!