Friday, September 27, 2013

Seeing Susan Cooper

So, thanks to someone in our book group sending out the word (thanks, Matt), Janice and I found out about Susan Cooper's being scheduled to give a speech tonight down in Puyallup as part of their first annual Book Fair (which they're combining with the celebration of their library's centennial).  We thought we'd allowed plenty of time, but inexplicable slowdowns on Hwy167 (the valley highway) meant we arrived just as folks were getting seated.

There were actual several parts to tonight's event: three songs performed by the Revels, a group/ musical movement I'd not heard of before today but wh. Cooper has been involved with for decades,* a brief talk by a fellow who I think is director of the library, a film tribute to the English teacher whom they were naming the lecture series after (Jim Taylor). The surprise appearance of Ursula K. LeGuin, tomorrow's featured speaker, to give the introduction to Cooper's talk tonight was an added bonus, LeGuin being her usual articulate, witty self (with the occasional sting, as is her wont), and warm to boot (which is not always the case).  And then of course there was the lecture itself, partly autobiographical and partly focused in on the importance of libraries; she also spoke at the end about her latest novel, GHOST HAWK, about the local Native Americans who once lived where she now lives, in a house that sounds right out of THE WOMAN IN BLACK (Marshfield House, surrounded by sea-marshes and by salt water when the tide is high). Having grown up in London nightly bombings during World War II, she made clear that there's nothing like the knowledge that people are trying to kill you, without your personally having done anything to them or even having met them, to start you thinking about the evil humans do to each other. It was a good talk; glad we made it.

Tomorrow it's LeGuin's turn, so we're planning on heading back down for that (and to see if Cooper returns the favor and introduces LeGuin in turn); thanks to Gyda (also of book group) for letting us know LeGuin was coming. They're also having a mini comicon, so there shd be plenty to do.

If I'd had a chance to ask her a question, it wd have been about whether she ever went to any of Tolkien's lectures -- having worked out from her age and learning that she went to Somerville College that she must have just missed Lewis but wd have been there when Tolkien was still there. Turns out she addresses this in an interview on her website ( I was wrong, in that she did go to Lewis's lectures as well as some of Tolkien's. The only detail she gives about him being that he was "rather mumbly" but she does mention how they all eagerly awaited the publication of THE RETURN OF THE KING, which pretty much dates it. She also talks about the Tolkien/Lewis syllabus' focus on preVictorian literature, with the result that their exposure to Malory and Spenser encouraged an interest in dragons.

I also learned from her website that she's published a book of essays and lectures. DREAMS AND WISHES [1996], which I'll have to track down, given that I enjoyed her talk tonight enough to want more.

I do have to add that I had one real shock during the short film they ran honoring Jim Taylor, the Puyallup high school English teacher they've named the new lecture series after. Included in the happy memories of how inspiring a teacher he was came one woman's account of how he burned her twelve-page essay (on WAR AND PEACE I think it was) before the whole class because she'd ended a sentence with a preposition. I'm sorry, all my years of teaching (two at Fayetteville, seven more at Marquette, not to mention Continuing Education night classes) rose up in revulsion at any teacher who'd do that to a student. And over such a crackpot thing such as ending sentences with prepositions. Gah!

But as for the lecture itself, and the whole book fair: they're off to a great start, and I hope it becomes the ongoing tradition they plan for it to be. In all the years I've lived in the region (is it really sixteen years since we left Wisconsin?), this is just the second time I've been in Puyallup. The first time was to visit their local cheese shop, which disappointingly turned out not to carry Cheshire. This second visit was far more satisfactory. We'll see how the third once tomorrow goes.

Here's the link for the Book Fair et al:

--John R.
current reading: THE MAGICIANS AND MRS. QUENT by "Galen Beckett"

*(their singing is excellent, but they have an annoying habit of trying to get the audience involved, then dropping that audience en masse once they're done with them)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Rigby, being adorable

A fine photo taken tonight by Janice of Rigby, our senior cat (fifteen years and counting). Thought I'd share.  --JDR

Jack Chick's electronic children

So, I was sitting in the Little Rock airport Friday, sipping tea and waiting for my flight to be called (having driven up from Magnolia in sometimes torrential rain). Little Rock being one of those civilized airports that provides free wi-fi, I was checking my e-mail one last time before what promised to be hours offline, when a man walking by stopped, put something on the table, and walked off. That seemed odd, so I moved the computer screen till I cd see it: a little card like a business card or a calling card, bearing the header "EVOLUTION vs. GOD: Shaking the Foundations of Faith", the phrase "Watch It Free Online" and the website url "". This got me curious, so I hung onto the card and checked it out once I'd finally gotten home, rested up a bit, and was putting away things from the trip.

I had imagined this would be a link to one of those website that try to prove dinosaurs lived alongside humans, or that grasshoppers had a different number of legs back in Biblical times, or that modern science is a Satanic plot, something along those lines. Turns out typing it into Google leads you a Creationist film on YouTube which tries to disprove Darwinism and ends with* a long ad for one of those Creationist museums.

When I mentioned the whole card-dropped-on-table thing to Janice, it turned out she'd had a similar experience on her flight home from Milwaukee that same day, although in her case it was a woman in the seat next to her, and what he passed out was a photocopied folded piece of paper advertising free bible guides from "", which seems to be a non-functional website.

What interested me most was not the contents of these sites (or the dismal quality thereof) but the stealth evangelizing involved in trying to get people to visit them. This seems to me very obviously a modern-day analogy to Jack Chick's little pamphlets, which people used to leave on gas pumps, or hand out to passers-by, or leave in desks at high school. But with those you got a lurid little morality tale, of a sort that I can now see in retrospect owe less to Jonathan Edwards than to E. C. Comics. The most notorious of them was DARK DUNGEONS, an unintentionally hilarious denunciation of Dungeons and Dragons which ended by advocating a book-burning of J. R. R. Tolkien's and C. S. Lewis's works.  I have to say that I'd take Chick's febrile but sincere little tracts over the self-satisfied manipulativeness of that You-Tube film.

Of course, I didn't manage to get all the way through that film and after the first nine minutes or so was reduced to skimming, so maybe I missed so little gem in the middle. Or, as they say, your mileage may vary.

--John R.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

September 22nd

Happy Bilbo's Birthday, all!
   --John R.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Cats In Space*

So, today saw a little news item about how the Iranian space program is coming along nicely, and that within the next six months they're thinking of sending a cat into space and safely returning it to earth (as the U. S. did early on with monkeys and the Soviets with dogs**). And what kind of cat would the Iranians (or, to give them their traditional name, the Persians) send up? Three guesses, and you win if you guessed Persian:

--By the way, the cat pictured in the article is not the cat they'd be sending up; in the way of news websites everywhere Talking Points puts up generic pictures (i.e., stock photos) with their articles.

I don't know if this marks the milestone of the first cat in space or not, but I predict he, or she, isn't going to like it. On the other hand, a show cat might be just the thing, since they're trained to be passive and unflappable. So, a neat bit of news, but still, poor cat.

--John R., from Arkansas***

*If you're of my generation, you'll hear echoes of THE MUPPET SHOW when you see this phrase.

**That is, if you leave out the "returning them to earth" part so far as the Russians were concerned. The tale of the first dog in space is not a happy one.

***Hey, turns out that new HotSpot I brought with me this trip really, really works. There's a bright spot in an otherwise less than cheery week.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

When Less Is More, or, Wm Hope Hodgson gets Colley Cibber'd

So, a week ago (W.9/4) I was pleasantly surprised to find that the local Barnes and Noble had a copy of Wm Hope Hodgson's dark masterpiece, THE NIGHT LAND, right there on the shelf. Since I consider this one  of the ten greatest works of fantasy ever written, seeing it available and out where it might entice new readers is altogether a good thing. But when I pulled it off the shelf for a closer look, my enthusiasm took a hit.

 For one thing, this is not the whole book, but an abridged text, lacking the first chapter and the final third of the novel.  You can make a case of abridging THE NIGHT LAND, which is a long and difficult book.  Hodgson even invented his own dialect of English to write the story in, one that leans heavily on infinitives and emphatics. As a distancing device it's brilliant, but it's not for those who want an easy read: like Clark Ashton Smith he requires effort, and like Smith he vastly repays it.

But abridgment is one thing and drastic surgery another. As Erik Davis makes plain in his Introduction to this HiLoBooks edition (part of their 'Radium Age of Science Fiction' series*), they feel they've done Hodgson a service by censoring his novel, improving it by lopping off the happy ending. This is the equivalent of preparing a new edition of THE LORD OF THE RINGS and dropping the first chapter (since it deals with Bilbo, not Frodo, and forms the prologue to the main story) and everything after Frodo and Sam collapse on Mount Doom. It certainly makes for a more Stephen Donaldish ending, but in Tolkien's case the long denouement is a key part of the novel, as prophecies come to pass, demonstrating the fading of the old world into reality as we know it. Similarly, the final chapters of Hodgson's THE NIGHT LAND contain one of the purest eucatastrophes ever written, on par with that which ends Hughart's THE BRIDGE OF BIRDS. To lose it is a pity; to be forced to omit it a shame; to boast about mutilating Hodgson's book a sign that you really, truly, don't understand Hodgson.

What's more, we know that Hodgson himself would have rejected this procedure. When he himself produced a drastically abridged version of this book (called THE DREAM OF X) in order to secure American copyright, he cut almost 90% of the original but was careful to include the eucatastrophe, devoting a good bit of his precious space to that most important moment in the book. So we know that while Hodgson was open to abridgment, even radical abridgment, this was one of the few sections of the long story which he felt must be included.

So, good intentions, but regrettable results. Cutting THE NIGHT LAND is like cutting Lindsay's A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS (another complex and difficult work that rewards those who get caught up in its daemonic energy): why would anyone read a large percentage of a masterpiece? Is there anyone who wishes Tolkien had let Collins cut THE LORD OF THE RINGS back in 1952? Or anyone who'd prefer a Reader's Digest version of Eddison's THE WORM OUROBOROS?

For those who just want a taste to see what Hodgson's best is like, THE DREAM OF X is ideal for that purpose, presenting a sequence of excerpts of the major scenes. Those unafraid of a long book (a description that can fairly be applied to many of the most beloved books in fantasy) I'd advise to take the plunge and read THE NIGHT LAND as Hodgson actually wrote, and published, it. If it's not for you, you'll probably put it down after a few chapters; if it is, you'll be enthralled and want to read the whole thing. A skillful abridgment might do to give you a taste of the real thing, but this HiLo abridgment reshapes the book into the one the editor wishes the author had written.


current reading, Kindle: THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON (reads like an al-Qadim novelization)
current reading, actual book: THE GHOST STORIES OF EDITH WHARTON (bought in the Brookfield Schwartz in 1993, back when there was still a Harry Schwartz bookstore in Milwaukee).
current music: several early EMERSON, LAKE, and PALMER albums, courtesy of Sam (thanks, Sam).

*minor works by Jack London (The Scarlet Plague), Conan Doyle (The Poison Belt), Kipling (the two Night Mail/ABE books), Haggard (When the World Shook), et al.   The introduction does a good job relating Hodgson's book (the first written but last published among his four novels) to contemporary traditions of fantasy, science fiction, and horror.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Mountain, 103.7

So,  Friday amid all the unrelenting dire news re. the buildup to yet another war came some local news that, while trivial in comparison, actually has impact on my daily life: our favorite local radio station is shutting down, effective immediately. 'The Mountain' (FM 103.7) played a good mix of rock classics and more recent music in the same mode. Too many commercials at times, but a good station: one we found soon after our arrival out here (in September 1997: sixteen years ago as of about this time). Lately it's lost ground to 96.5 ('Jack FM'), supplemented by 102.5 (whose motto isn't, but ought to be, 'all Led Zeppelin, all the time') and 95.7 (the best of all the local oldies stations).* But for all that The Mountain has stayed as the first preset button on our radio ever since;** we even have one of the 'unplugged' albums they put out.*** I'll miss it, all the more since what's replacing it -- billed as music for women -- turns out to be synthesized voice songs of the sort I associate with ads for Barbie movies.

According to the announcement The Mountain will carry on online as a streaming radio station. I'm not much on the streaming, but will have to give it a try. I fear it'll be like the Seattle P-I, the better of the two local papers, once a major print paper but since imploded to just a website. Alas.

Here's the announcement (thanks to Janice for sharing the news), followed by a link to the streaming site.


P.S.: It occurred to me that non-Seattleites might not get the station's name: in these parts, any time you refer to THE mountain, it means Mount Rainier, which dominates the landscape for miles and miles and miles. 

*until recently this list of favorite stations wd have included 101.5, but they changed format recently, away from rock and into recent very light pop (pseudo disco) and lost me.

**in the cars, that is; inside they're all set to NPR.

***esp. for the songs "Spooky" as covered by Joan Osbourne and "Little Heaven" by Cesar Rosas (never heard of the song or group before getting the cd, making this quite the discovery); the accoustic cover of "Overkill" by Colin Hay and Shawn Mullins' "Lullabye" also keep us coming back to this one from time to time.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Relics of GenCon II -- ADandD FIFTH EDITION preview

So, as mentioned in my previous post, the other spectacular bit of loot I got from this year's GenCon was the huge ADandD FIFTH EDITION preview, thanks to friend Luis (thanks Luis!). Called GHOSTS OF DRAGONSPHERE CASTLE, this is actually a 140-page adventure*  (which formed the basis of this year's DandD Open at GenCon), followed by 140-odd pages of rules for the new edition.

I've been in a playtest for 5th edition for quite a while now (actually, a sequence of several playtests over two years covering varying adventures with three different DMs), but not written about it here because of the NDA signed by all playtesters. But since WotC has now published a large fraction of said rules, there doesn't seem to be any harm in weighing in on some of the new rules thus made public: expect more posts from time to time on gaming topics arising out of this iteration of the rules-in-progress.

So, what's in this ruleset? Obviously, the rules needed to play the accompanying adventure. This explains the ability scores and bonuses derived therefrom, combat, equipment, healing, and the like. The two largest sections are spells (24 pages) and monsters (almost 50). Of these, the spells given are those for Clerics and Mages from 1st thr 5th level. Probably not the full spell lists even for those levels, but plenty to run all the adventures you want, and enough to see that this initial list, at least, is heavily dominated by the traditional ADandD spells: most of these appeared in the 1st edition PLAYER'S HANDBOOK (though with rather different effects), and even at the same levels.

The largest section of the playtest rules covers some ninety monsters , including such cult classics as carrion crawlers, the behir, giant frogs, stirges, trapper, lurker above, shrieker, and the one I'm most impressed with, green slime -- this last being a kind of touchstone between those who embrace Old School and those who disdain it. No piercer, rust monster, or roper, but then you can't have everything in a limited set like this one, which presumably features only those monsters encountered in the accompanying adventure.  The monster entries are on the long side, in keeping with the tradition of 2nd and subsequent editions rather than the admirable laconity of the old MONSTER MANUAL, but to their credit they don't devote a full page to each monster (2nd edition's worst mistake).

So, what's not here? Obviously, the biggest omission is character creation -- arguably the most important part of any roleplaying game. The pregenerated characters are (1) human cleric, (2) dwarf fighter, (3) human fighter, (4) elf mage, (5) human mage, and (6) halfling rogue. So just from this you can see that the four most popular character races (human, dwarf, elf, halfling) and four traditional core classes (fighter, cleric, rogue, mage) are in place. Too bad they didn't revert from the abomination that is "rogue" back to the simpler and more straightforward Thief, but at least 2nd edition's faux pas shift from cleric to "priest", undone by 3e, has stayed undone. As for the mage, I'm neutral whether character class (a favorite of mine) is called Magic-User (1st ed), Wizard (2nd, 3rd), or Mage (5th): it's all good. Wish I cd say the absence of gnomes here means they'll be dropped like the fifth wheel they are (one of the things the much-maligned 4th edition got right. sort of.), but it's probably only due to streamlining in the specific context of this adventure.

I'm a bit surprised they're planning to keep THE FORGOTTEN REALMS as the default setting; I'd have thought it'd have run its course. Apparently not: like a comic book company's continuity (DC, Marvel) apparently it can reset and carry on; its fans are that invested in their favorite game world.**

THE THING I LIKE MOST ABOUT THIS PRODUCT: old art. They've reproduced a wonderful mix of art from all different eras of the game, including a lot from the three classic 1st edition rulebooks. This is particularly satisfying to me because in my time at TSR, then WotC, and finally Hasbro I from time to time would put into an art order as pick-up to reproduce one of these old pieces, only to invariably have the art director veto it. She felt that the game had come too far and that the work of Trampier, Diesel, and Sutherland wasn't up to her own high standards. I thought the best of the old art matched anything the then-current lot of black-and-white illustrators were turning out. Some of the new ones were very, very good, but then some of the old art had also been very good, as well as evocative of a classic era.  Having lost those fights, it's good to see that old art making a reappearance here and now.

THE THING I DON'T LIKE: it's not a biggie, but I question the inclusion of snarky post-it notes. Some of them are funny, but they have a tendency to Mystery-Science-Theatre the proceedings.  Call it a personal quirk, but it's my belief that MST treatment shd be reserved for dreck -- and GHOSTS OF DRAGONSPEAR CASTLE is anything but.

Now, if only I cd find time to read the adventure itself.

--John R.
current reading: this and that
current audiobook: THE CANON, continued
today's song: "Surfin' Frog" from A TOWN CALLED PANIC
yesterday's game: MYTHOS (thanks Luis, Anne, Sig, and Steve M. for indulging me)
tonight's game: DandD 5th edition.

 *written by the amazing Chris Perkins, long the mainstay of that department and averter of many a disaster, being not only fast but good.

**I've always preferred homebrew when it came to campaign worlds, despite having worked at one time or another on most of TSR/WotC's ADandD worlds: the Known World (Mystara), the Realms, Eberron, Ravenloft, al-Qadim, SpellJammer, bits of Greyhawk, even a brief Planescape adventure. I think DarkSun and BirthRight might be the only ones I never worked on. Of all these, the ones I like best are the ones that offer a really different play experience from the default ADandD world: Bruce Nesmith's Ravenloft, Jeff Grubb's al-Qadim, and Keith Baker's Eberron. ***

***note that both Ravenloft and al-Qadim were edited by Andria Hayday, TSR's editor extraordinaire.