Short Reviews – Assault on a City by Jack Vance

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Assault on a City by Jack Vance appeared in the 1974 collection Universe: 4.519QW9-HHhL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

I’m doing something a bit different this week; circumstances have kept me from having time to hit the pulp stack but having seen a few articles on the Sensor Sweep mentioning the rapey nature of some of Vance’s characters and the questioning of rape as a narrative device, it seemed strangely prescient that I just happened to find a collection over the weekend with this particular story in it. Assault on a City looks at what would happen when one of those dirty rotten no-good rapey protagonists tries his shtick on one of those smart, collected and brave pulp sci-fi girls.

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Jack & Gary

“There is a truly great advantage offered to the Game Master when devising a
campaign set on the Dying Earth. It is not highly detailed. There is no strict timeline laid
down. All that has happened before is not “recorded”, nor is there an accurate gazetteer
of for the world. What magic operates? Nobody can say or guess, because in the long
eons of the Dying Earth’s history, likely every form possible was discovered, used, and
then forgotten…almost. That means that all that’s necessary is to have the game in hand,
the books that Jack Vance wrote about the world, to create a really compelling campaign
environment. Using the creative base of the author, the GM’s own imagination cannot
fail but to rise to the occasion.” – Gary Gygax, Jack Vance & the D&D Game 

I’ve been saying for ages now, all you need to run a game is a good short story and some stat blocks.

You’ll find some good stories that qualify in our upcoming issues… subscribe today!

 

Because I Just Really Want To Hammer This Home About Vance

Voltaire’s Candide:

“Love you not deeply?”
“Oh yes,” answered he; “I deeply love Miss Cunegonde.”
“No,” said one of the gentlemen, “we ask you if you do not deeply love the King of the Bulgars?”
“Not at all,” said he; “for I have never seen him.”
“What! he is the best of kings, and we must drink his health.”
“Oh! very willingly, gentlemen,” and he drank.
“That is enough,” they tell him. “Now you are the help, the support, the defender, the hero of the Bulgars. Your fortune is made, and your glory is assured.”
Instantly they fettered him, and carried him away to the regiment. There he was made to wheel about to the right, and to the left, to draw his rammer, to return his rammer, to present, to fire, to march, and they gave him thirty blows with a cudgel. The next day he did his exercise a little less badly, and he received but twenty blows. The day following they gave him only ten, and he was regarded by his comrades as a prodigy.

 

“My friend,” said the orator to him, “do you believe the Pope to be Anti-Christ?”
“I have not heard it,” answered Candide; “but whether he be, or whether he be not, I want bread.”
“Thou dost not deserve to eat,” said the other. “Begone, rogue; begone, wretch; do not come near me again.”
The orator’s wife, putting her head out of the window, and spying a man that doubted whether the Pope was Anti-Christ, poured over him a full…. Oh, heavens! to what excess does religious zeal carry the ladies.

Vance’s Cugel’s Saga:

“…may I inquire your opinion of Cuirnif? What reception may I expect? Are the folk notably eccentric?”
“To some extent,” replied Erwig. “They use no whitewash in their hair; and they are slack in their religious observances, making obeisance to Divine Wiulio with the right hand on the abdomen, instead of upon the left buttock, which we here consider a slipshod practice. What is your opinion?”
“The rite should be conducted as you describe,” said Cugel. “No other method caries weight.”
Erwig refilled Cugel’s glass. “I consider this an important endorsement of our views, coming as it does from you, an expert traveler!”

In all of his adventures, Cugel strikes as someone who has either actually read Candide and determined he would learn from the kid’s mistakes OR in his younger years Cugel more or less WAS Candide.

A Quick Short Review Round-up

Here’s a quick look a what I’ve been talking about over at Castalia House.  If you haven’t read these, check them out.  Or better yet, find these stories and read them yourself if you can!

Coming of the Gods by Chester Whitehorn – Martian vs Rat-men
Assault on a City by Jack Vance – A pulp dame saves herself from rapists.
Cosmic Yo-yo by Ross Rocklynne – Asteroid Haulers crash the competition and find true love
Mists of Mars by George A. Whittington – A Martian Princess’ revolution succeeds with the help of a space cop
The Spider Men of Gharr by Wilbur Scott Peacock – Cryofrozen action scientist awakes to find Earth conquered by evil aliens
Retro Fandom Friday – 1940s fans celebrate and complain about Sci-fi

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Short Reviews – The Overworld, by Jack Vance

The Overworld by Jack Vance first appeared in the December 1965 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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Real Short Reviews will return at Castalia House next week with George A. Whittington’s Mists of Mars.  Today, check out this interview I did with Joe Stech of Compelling Science Fiction.  No foolin!*

Since I’ve been talking about thieves this week and have finally had a chance to dig back into my Dying Earth Omnibus again for the first time in nearly two months, expect to see some actual Vance stuff in the soontime.

*:Hopefully our site will be back up soon; we’ve had some ISP issues the last couple of days; apologies to anyone who has clicked through to the short reviews I linked earlier only to land at a 404 page.  Until Castalia House comes back online, the interview with Joe Stech can be found here.

 

Weekend Megahaul & Other Stuffs

I can’t help myself.  I know I buy books at about a 5 to 1 ratio of how quickly I can read them, but I see stuff and am all “I’m going to read that eventually!”  Well, this weekend was no different, except in that it may be one of my most impressive hauls yet.

I finally found a copy of Nine Princes of Amber; for the longest time, I’d given up on grabbing various Zelazny books I’d find at thrift stores, because I had ended up with a random assortment of mid-to late Amber books that I didn’t want to read until I’d read the first one.  Well, now I’ve got the first one.  Not only did I find NPoA, I got The Visual Guide to Castle Amber which is sort of like a system-agnostic setting supplement module disguised as a handsome hardbound book.  But to take things a step further down the Amber rabbit hole, I found one of those solo RPG Choose Your Own Adventure books that takes place in the Amber setting.  And a similar book from the same line that is a Starship Troopers solo RPG CYOA with a foreword written by Gary GygaxIllustrated Changeling looks like it’ll be pretty awesome, and despite its alleged flaws, I couldn’t pass up a hardback of Jack of Shadows for $3.

It doesn’t stop there: I actually had to pass up a few books that I really wanted, because I was already getting hardbacks of Araminta Station and Ecce & Old Earth by Jack Vance, as well as a floppy 35cent pulp print of The Space Pirate.

Because they’re short and were only $1, I got the 1st and 3rd Dreamlord books to supplement the 2nd (which was never printed with a number in either of its editions apparently).

You’d think that was an impressive haul, but wait, there’s more!  I got an issue of Top in SF with the Bradbury/Brackett collaboration Lorelei.  Sure, it’s a reprint (the PS with Lorelei is one of the Holy Grails of SF pulp), but it’s something!  I also got the Fantastic with Leiber’s “Dr Adam’s Garden of Evil” as the cover story, and the all-star F&SF with Flowers for Algernon.

In fact, the place I went had a TON of issues of F&SF from the 50s.  I’m kind of impressed by how boring the average F&SF cover has always been.

Before I can even think about diving into the new haul, or even whittling down the stacks from previous hauls, I need to finish The Egyptian, which had been sitting on my shelf for far too long.  The Egyptian was probably one of my favorite movies of all time.  It might also be shaping up to be one of my favorite books.

I’ve always got a kick out of the fact that the most well-known lines of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” were plucked and paraphrased from Sinhue’s epic speech at the end of the movie:

“I will wear the clothes of a slave and kick the sandals from my feet and speak to the wives as they fry their fish before their mud huts before the river, to the porters on the docks, to the smiths by the bellows, to the slaves under their yokes, and I will say ‘A man cannot be judged by the color of his skin, by his clothes, his jewels, or his triumphs, but only by his heart. A good man is better than a bad man.  Justice is better than injustice.  He who uses mercy is superior to him who uses violence, though the latter call himself Pharaoh and make himself master of the earth.  We have but one master: the God who made us all.  Only His truth is immortal, and in His truth all men are equal!”

I’m not criticizing King, I’m saying he knew epic when he saw it and had great taste.

Later this week, Fortress Europa, maybe a Short Review, and almost certainly an update/reminder on the zine project.

A Very Long and Rambling Post About Morrowind, the Elder Scrolls and Maybe a Little Jack Vance

I’m a huge fan of the Elder Scrolls games and have talked about them at length both here and on the comments over at Rumors of War when discussing things ranging from quest design to how to handle factions. I haven’t talked about them as much lately, because I felt like I’ve said most of what I’d have to say and I don’t want to retread too often. I also hadn’t been playing them much recently, so I haven’t had any real useful epiphanies about the Elder Scrolls to comment on. Until now…

I got into the Elder Scrolls through Oblivion. I played it on a friend’s box back in 2006 for a little bit. It was one of the most amazing and beautiful games I’d ever seen (c’mon, guys, it was 2006!); I had to get it! Well, I got it and I sunk more hours than I can comprehend. I’ve probably lost literal months of my life to this and other Elder Scrolls games. Eventually I played all 4 of the core Elder Scrolls games, and I could understand fans of Morrowind’s major issues with Oblivion.

Both Arena and Daggerfall are very much genre games. Arena was a straight-forward affair in which one collected MacGuffins from impressive locations to kill an evil wizard. In some ways, Daggerfall might be considered one of the watersheds of Post-genre fantasy, because it was one of the first games to really begin the shift toward the Orcs as noble savage paradigm that has become so commonplace and it did a lot with its in-game books, but other than that it was still very bog-standard fantasy with all of the typical factions of thieves, fighters, mages, assassins guilds and temples and such. There was a bit of strange that was creeping in by way of the cosmology introduced in Daggerfall and the short fiction included in-game, but for all intents and purposes, it was western style fantasy adventure. Oblivion is also a fairly straight-forward affair of western style castles, knights and heroes; the loudest complaints one heard about Oblivion were the sparseness of locations, the lack of extensive dialogue that was present in Morrowind, and the relatively normal and generic fantasy feel of Oblivion compared to Morrowind.

And yes, I’ve always agreed since I’ve had the chance to play it that Morrowind is one of the best fantasy settings of damn near any game ever made, but I may finally be able to articulate why it stands out the way it does and why Elder Scrolls fans have so much praise for it.

I’ve come back to Morrowind once again, this time because of the Vance I’ve been reading. I’ve yet to get my hands on much of Vance’s fantasy works, but I’ve now read several books in his Gaean Reach setting. They seem to straddle the line of science-fantasy, sometimes leaning a bit towards the fantasy and sometimes leaning away. For instance, the Gray Prince had some magical elements while The Dogtown Tourist Agency did not, though they take place in the same megasetting. Whether there is mystical and magical present or not, Vance’s worlds are all strange and alien places where one can have an exciting adventure through the unfamiliar. For instance, Miro Hetzel, the Galactic Effectuator, has a hard-nosed detective adventure on a desert world whose native populace is a barbarian race of lizard men who reproduce by fighting wars and laying eggs in the dead bodies. The story, outside investment & cheap labor paid for unethically, possibly illegally, being used to undercut manufacturing competitors, is mundane but the setting is uncanny.

Out of all of the Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind is the only one that feels very pre-genre. It could be set on a moon of Alpha Centauri for how bizarre it is. Reading the Gray Prince, The Dragon Masters and Galactic Effectuator had me thinking “My God, the Elder Scrolls could easily be set in the Gaean Reach post collapse!” Especially compared to the games that came before and after it, Morrowind’s elves are strange and incredibly alien, not to mention the Khajiit and Argonians… these races all feel like they’re straight out of sci-fi pulps! I’ve already talked about how the Dunmer Ashlanders of Morrowind bear a striking resemblance to the Uldras in the Gray Prince. And I’ll always think of Anne McCaffrey’s cat people of Doona with their rolling R’s when I hear a Khajiit mumbling about yummy drugs and friendship.

Morrowind is a world of towering mushroom trees, giant insect egg mines, multi-thousand year old fortresses inhabited by squatting wizards and devil worshiping cults, spells and scrolls named after the wizards who wrote them, magic users experimenting with new spells with fatal results, ancient magics beyond the comprehension of even the most powerful contemporary wizards, and cities made from the dead husks of extinct giant desert crabs. And this world is full of petty rivalries, slave trades, smugglers, mundane organized crime, blue collar workers, desert nomads, librarians, farmers, potters, peddlars and petty thieves. It’s wild and crazy anything goes heroic fantasy pulp! And to just make things a little bit meta, there are heroic fantasy pulp stories to be found and read IN GAME. A few in game books are simple flavor and not much to talk about, but some of the multi-part novellas, such as A Dance in Fire (15,487 words), the Wolf Queen (11,944 words), The Real Barenziah(18,188/22,534 words), 2920: The Last Year of the First Era (20,779 words), or even the much shorter Bone (3,158 words) are worthy as stand-alone entries in the genre. They inform and are informed by the game’s strange world which was first informed by influence of several pulp heroic fantasy/sword & sorcery writers; there’s very little of the Tolkienesque tradition found here, and even less of the Dragonlance/Forgotten Realms post-genre influence on the setting.

So it is quite understandable that fans who were awed by the wild and pulpy world of Morrowind would be disappointed by relatively bland world of Oblivion, especially for those who HAD read the various in game books that described the Imperial province as a terrifying jungle filled with Burroughsian white apes. To make matters worse, while fighting relatively mundane enemies in a fairly samey fantasy setting, we get things like the in-game sequel to A Dance In Fire, The Argonian Account (7,039 words), which tells tales of mysterious and festering swamps where inhabitants travel around via the slow-working digestive tracks of fast-burrowing swamp worms… REALLY WEIRD STUFF! And you find yourself wondering “Why am I riding a horse from one generic copy-paste castle ruin or limestone cave to the next when before I was poking around weird haunted steam-punk dwarven ruins and ancient alien elf-fortresses from the 1st Age?” Locations that were referred to and relevant to the in-game fiction often appeared nowhere in game, with two whole cities missing, but that could be more easily overlooked had the game’s tone continued to reflect that which was established by the prior game and the game’s own in-world accounts of itself. The world in the books about the game’s world made you wish that you were playing there instead, even though the world in the books was supposedly the game’s world.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t able to articulate my thesis as well and concisely as I’d hoped to, but I made a try of it, by golly!

Anyway, I said I was going to criticize Morrowind as well as praise it, and I still intend to do so.

Awesome setting aside, Morrowind suffers from a major problem in the form of a lack of urgency, largely due to its game world’s static nature. The Camonna Tong is ALWAYS in the middle of some scheme whose trigger is never pulled, the Great Houses are always just on the verge of some big conflict, the Thieves Guild and Fighters Guild are always on the brink of a big intrigue, and nothing ever happens until the player actively engages those factions’ story-lines. Which isn’t a HUGE problem in itself, but it becomes an issue when nothing happens AFTER the player has engaged those story-lines. Dagoth Ur is scheming and his sleepers are hanging around, but they don’t DO anything, and Dagoth Ur is literally waiting for the player to come visit and kill him. Morrowind lacks a dynamic world, and therefore the player has no impetus to do more than dick around at leisure. This is slightly different from Daggerfall which would have certain quests running in the background, and all known quests, once engaged, became time sensitive. But that Telvanni spy that Ranis Athrys wants you to out is going to be there hanging around not doing anything until you out him, and if you never out him, it’s not like he actually does anything.

Recently Dither of Rumors of War came up with a simple classification system for plots:

Event: Urgent and Important
Quest: Important but Not Urgent
Affair: Urgent but Not Important
Rumor: Neither Urgent nor Important

To be truly engaging, a game world needs to have all of these types of plots. Morrowind’s biggest issue is that it lacks Events, and the Affair types are Rumor’s in disguise, because any sense of urgency is artificial. Telling the lady with Corprus disease to leave Vivec or catching the murderers who have killed the pilgrims and Ordinators in Vivec may seem urgent – you may even be told that dealing with it is urgent -, but you’re left entirely to your own schedule to handle them with no alteration of outcome if you delay or expedite accomplishing them. The effects of lacking Events and Affairs in Morrowind are exacerbated by the fact that you have an in-game calendar, a day and night system, and a track of how many in-game days have passed. The calendar was used to more effect in Daggerfall, wherein holidays and demon summoning days fell on specific dates that had in-game effects, and, as mentioned before, all quests were on time-tables ranging from around a week to a month. As far as I know, Morrowind is the ONLY core Elder Scrolls game in which the day and night system have only cosmetic effects on gameplay (with, perhaps, the exception of the sneak skill).

Oblivion really does not handle this much better, though if anything, certain bugs that lead to non-flagged NPCs accidentally killing themselves or something do give certain things a sense of urgency. For example, getting enough money to buy the best house in the game before the guy you buy it from falls off the castle bridge and dies. But one of the jokes I read once was that never starting the main quest was the responsible thing to do, because, with the exception of Kvatch, Oblivion gates won’t start opening up until you’ve given the Amulet of Kings to Joffre.

Daggerfall managed to convey urgency at times, particularly in certain stages of the game, because quests would run in the background that would send assassins and monsters after you until you finished or began certain quests, though these were infrequent. With Morrowind, they were virtually non-existent. The adventure hook to entice the player to explore the Tribunal content aimed to create this effect – an assassin from the Dark Brotherhood would interrupt your sleep and try to kill you – but ultimately fails because the moment you mention the attempt on your life to anyone with that as a topic, you’ll never be attacked by them again. On one hand, if the attacks were pressed until you actually dealt with the quest line and confront Helseth’s Lieutenant about it, there would be a greater sense of urgency. On the other hand, I could see how it would be damn annoying to have to go and briefly interact with high-level expansion content at low levels just to stop getting attacked every couple of days.

Without that sense of urgency and change, however, Vvardenfell begins to feel dead, especially after months of in-game playing to the point at which you’re the head of multiple guilds and are the elf-pope. Around that point, you kill the god Vivec and stuff him in a soul gem because why not? No one is going to notice or care. And then you start killing everyone because no one can stop you and you’ve finished most of the interesting quests anyway. Then you realize, walking around an empty Balmora, that nothing really feels that different.

For your game world to feel dynamic and real (tabletop or otherwise), you need to have things going on, stuff that can be potentially missed by your players. I tend to use what I call quantum content; things stay in stasis until players have interacted with them. Once they’ve seen something, it’s set in motion and they need to either deal with it to resolve it or somehow it’ll resolve itself. You can’t put everything in real-time, because then you’ll have to keep track of everything doing stuff and killing each other in a dungeon that your player may never even explore. But once your players know a princess is being held somewhere, they’d better get off their ass to save her, because one way or another, she won’t be there to save for long.