Saturday, February 28, 2009

2/28/09

Since I've done info dumps a couple of times this week, I'm going to try to be brief on the next few posts. I've got a couple of writing things I'm working-- one for Gene and another I'm trying to pad into shape in my head. Then I have to get caught up on emails for Libri Vidicos. In any case I'll try to be more focused here for a few days.

Books I've Read Recently That I've Enjoyed

The New Weird (Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, ed)
This is an anthology of stories and excerpts drawing from various authors who echo a particular movement in fantasy and sci-fi-- with China Mieville, Steph Swainston, and M. John Harrison noted as often echoing the themes. There's an excellent introduction where the editors try to set out some of the ideas and a decent bibliography at the end.

The stories themselves are generally pretty good-- strangely, while they do cite and include Moorcock as an influence, the selection they choose is fairly prosaic. I'm also a little surprised William S. Burroughs isn't mentioned more strongly as an forerunner. There's a round-robin story at the end that includes an entry by my sister, Cat Rambo, so that's a plus. There's also a brief piece from a discussion on what might define The New Weird, from a thread begun by Harrison. I liked the book and was surprised how much of the stuff I'd already read or owned (Jay Lake, Thomas Ligotti, Jeffrey Ford).

In the debate about literary genres and names, there's mention of the backlash against the label of Cyberpunk and how that spun out of control into third-tier aping crap. Having lived through the time when that stuff first arrived on the scene (William Gibson, George Alec Effinger, Bruce Sterling) the vitriol bothered me. But they are right that so many of the interesting ideas of that period got watered down and mass-marketed. That also made me realize what I didn't like about S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods. It has great images and some interesting stuff, but it feels more like someone borrowing the weird and using it in the most conventional and salable way-- beyond the fact that the story just breaks down over time into a literal deus ex machina without irony.

The Rest is Noise (Alex Ross)
Ross has produced the definitive overview of Classical Music in the 20th Century. I don't think there can be any doubt of that. Without adhering slavishly to a chronological order for his explanation and analysis he still manages to put the pieces together comprehensibly (in all senses of that word). He shows how various composers interacted on a personal and compositional level. He ties together the political and intellectual movements of the times and demonstrates their impact on music. In that sense it is a wonderful look at how this past century rolled out from a different perspective.

I'm a big fan of cultural history-- or of histories that take an unusual approach. I've always been fascinated by historiography and intellectual history. There's something I want to write some day about battling Cliomancers with disparate takes on what history means, writing and rewiring the stories of the past. I also love 20th Century Classical music-- up to a point. Ross's has made me re-interested in some composers that I wrote off as too distant and too strange (Carter and Ligetti for example). If you like more modern classical music it is worth a read.

Too Cool to Be Forgotten (Alex Robinson)
Gene sent me this. I had seen it mentioned on a number of comic book blogs, but I hadn't picked up much about the story. I assumed it feel into the category of Autobiographical graphic novels, something I've never been that interested in. While it obviously does draw on some autobiography, the framing device for the book is great and makes everything fresh.

It also helps that the period and setting he's dealing with, high school in the mid 80's corresponds exactly to my experience. Not in the sense that I was in the same kind of group-- being mostly pure geeky, keeping to myself, and playing rpgs with people several years older than me. But he does present a version of the times that rings true. The reveal and change that happens late in the book works and works well. And I'll admit I cried, but then again I'm an easy mark for sentimentality.

Weapons of the Gods Companion
Yes, it is an rpg book, but it is also a very weird beast. The original core book for Weapons of the Gods is a set of rules that has consistently defeated me. I've gone back several times to reread it and only now do I think I have a grasp of the core mechanics. It is a Wuxia fantasy game, based in an established setting that I think few people have actually read. That's another strangeness-- I have a hard time telling how much is draw from that and how much is them weaving new things. It has ideas about building a character's destiny at the start of the game and a host of 'mechanics' that seem more story spinning than actual playable stuff. I had the same reaction to the rpg Nobilis which was authored by one of the writers for WotG, R. Sean Borgstrom. That book's one I regret losing in the fire.

In any case, the Companion follows up from the original book and adds some new mechanics. There are rules for developing new martial arts and artifact weapons. These sections are fairly prosaic, but if one were to run a Wuxia game they'd be great resources. There's also a complete city setting presented with the kind of detail that I love. Few mechanics combined with a rich sense of setting and dynamite ideas for entry points for the characters-- and not just entry points, but how to have the PCs actually matter in the course of the game. It is the best and most useful to me presentation of a city setting since the Kaiin Player's Guide for the Dying Earth rpg. I should stop me and say why I love the Kaiin book. That volume is completely written for the players. There is no GM supplement for the city. Instead, it presents ideas and discussion about the various parts of the city and then gives plot hooks. These hooks are ones for the players to develop and present to the GM-- the idea being that they can, on the fly, build themselves into the city. It is brilliant.

Back to the WoTG Companion-- rules for something called the Great Game take up the bulk of the volume. They present a comprehensive but loose set of structures for how to manage grand scale events and ideas in the game. Do you want to take control of a province and bring war to your neighbors? Do you want political control of a city? Do you want to spread your martial arts philosophy across the land? It has unique approach to handling that and integrating those things into the flow of a standard campaign. It might not be used by every GM, but I think the ideas there are useful for every GM.

Buffy: Season 8
I mentioned before that I'd been reading these, generously lent by H. I read the first three volumes. The first one, Long Way Home, is written by Whedon mostly. I enjoy his TV work, but I didn't care for his take on Astonishing X-Men which felt like an overly slavish love-letter to the early Claremont era of X-Men. There's something of that in the first volume-- and I initially classified it as fan-fiction. But eventually it grew on me. He jumps off from the logic of the end of the series and just keeps moving forward. I like the plot arc he's begun to set up here. It does have some real entry barriers for new readers-- if you don't know the Buffy Mythos well, you're going to be lost. It took me several reads to put together exactly what was going on and who got killed at a couple of crucial places. There's also a lot...a lot...packed into these first stories which threw me off a little, given how much decompressed story-telling has become the norm in comics now. Also, the art, while good, doesn't really make a serious attempt to look like the characters from the show which threw me a little.

Brian K. Vaughn penned the second volume, No Future for You. He wrote Y the Last Man and I generally like his handling of female characters. However the appearance of my least favorite Buffy character, Faith, hampered my enjoyment of this. We also get Giles once again being pushed out which annoys me. Still it does have great action, doesn't confuse like the first book, and manages to bring everything together with the metaplot.

The third volume Wolves at the Gate, has Drew Goddard listed as scripter. I'm not familiar with his other work, but Amazon shows him exclusively working on Buffy stuff. We have a little more of the problem with compressed storytelling here, but this time it works better. It also has a good deal more of the humor that I like from Whedon shows. Dracula returns and his portrayal made me laugh at several points. The final battle is great, several characters show up and have excellent moments, and everything hangs together. My only objection would be that it does suffer from a Women in Refrigerators moment pretty badly. But given how well it handles other feminist issues, I'm inclined to give it a pass.

Overall I'm really enjoying this comic book extension of the Buffy-verse.