Okeanos börjar fått sitt utseende

Tomas Arfert och jag har rekryterat Dennis Gustafsson som illustratör till Okeanos. Hans insatser i Fantasy! övertygade oss om att han har rätt stil för antikgrekisk havsfantasy. I helgen gjorde han ett par testbilder och jag bifogar en av dem här, en persisk äventyrare ombord på skeppet Keraunos. De flesta äventyren ytspelar sig i tropiska miljöer, så spelarrollerna tvingas anpassa sig till hettans krav. Rustning bär man bara när det är absolut nödvändigt. Stilmässigt är Dennis insprerad av den gamle sf-serietecknare Alex Raymond, fast lite mer gritty. Jag gillar det.

Persisk äventyrare

Review: John Carter the movie

One hundred years ago, Edgar Rice Burroughs created his peculiar brand of science fantasy by the publication of Princess of Mars. Transforming his Edwardian-era tale into an action movie suitable for a modern audience is a challenge. Burroughs’s style and pacing belongs to the pre-modernist era. His many Mars/Barsoom stories instead gain their power through their drama and colorful visions of an alien world. This movie takes more liberties with the John Carter stories than Peter Jackson did with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But this is a well-crafted Barsoom for our times.

What strikes me is the beauty of that far-away world: the arid plains and hills, the insectoid airships, the vertical rock city of Helium and the mobile monstrous machine that is the city of Zodanga. Disney has spent a fortune on this movie and spent it well: the esthetic execution is flawless. The Martian technology is appropriately designed right into the small details. The computer-animated tharks are believable — they never look CGI.

The protagonists are what you would expect from an old-fashioned yarn like this, with one exception: princess Dejah Thoris is a renowned scholar and a skilled sword-fighter, capable of putting down a horde of attacking soldiers. In short: she rocks. It was also a pleasure to see some British quality actors add their gravitas to plot, e.g. Ciarán Hinds as the jeddak (king) of Helium.

The twists and turns surrounding the scheming therns is clever. Burroughs never explained the backstory why people travel between the planets by teleportation, but the film does — in a way that I approve of. That also opens the door (pun intended) for the developments of the final ten-fifteen minutes of the movie.

I don’t want to put any spoilers into this review, because a lot of my enjoyment of John Carter was based on not knowing what was about to happen. Several things are left unexplained, but that is no problem because they are as mysterious to Dejah and John as they are to us. The therns must be having a lot of nasty tech hidden “up their sleeves” (unlike all other Barsoomians, the therns hide their bodies completely under long robes).

In Sweden movies are traditionally rated on a five-point scale. I give the John Carter movie 4 red planets out of 5. A beautiful world, a cool heroine, full-speed action. I got exactly what I expected. (And John Carter is notably more enjoyable than the regrettable Episodes I, II, and III of the Star Wars saga)

Disney gambled on making a cool adventure movie. To me, they succeeded. But I am an enthusiast of the right kind and the John Carter movie is made for people like me. And there aren’t enough of us in the world to ensure a financial success for the producer. So despite the “sequel to come” ending, I do not expect any John Carter II to be made. What a pity.

The Writing Career Begins

I have always been a teller of tall tales. During my school years, I harassed my teachers in Swedish, English and German with unusual essays dealing with science fiction or fantasy topics. In my final school year (1977-78), I wrote an SF novella as my graduation project. The oddest project the teachers had seen, but hardly the best. Producing such a long text turned out to be far more strenuous than I had imagined.

I got hooked on role-playing games in May 1977. At Sweden’s first wargaming convention in Gothenburg, Mikael Börjesson ran demo games of some new-fangled kind, called Dungeons & Dragons. It was an instant hit with me and most of the other chaps in our wargaming club.

In 1978 I switched to Traveller, a game far more to my taste. When GDW launched the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society (JTAS) magazine in 1979, I got the notion that I could contribute something to it. After having lived for a while in the United States and having studied English Lang for one semester at Gothenburg University, writing in English — nominally a foreign language — did not trouble me much. In the summer of 1979 I was drafted for ten months of military service. It was a boring experience and therefore I spent as much time as possible with the role-playing games.

Somewhen during those dreary months (I do not remember the details 30+ years later) I bought the first issue of JTAS and thereafter typed “The Werewolf Disease”, an adventure outline based on a scenario I had run in my group. I served in the army medical service so I had ready access to typewriters and my boss was a nice sergeant-major who overlooked my hobbies as long as I carried out my regular duties diligently. I mailed it to GDW with few expectations, but to my surprise I got a kind acceptance letter from Loren Wiseman, the JTAS editor, a few months later with an attached cheque. Cashing it turned out to be impossible because of the local bank regulations. I made a photocopy of it for my archive and returned it to Loren, who instead paid me by a device called International Money Order (probably obsolete today). And my first professional article appeared in JTAS #5 (in late 1980 or early 1981).JTAS5

“The Werewolf Disease” was a werewolf tale in sci-fi disguise. The characters’ task was to track down and capture a scientist who suffered from the unexpected side-effects of a medical experiment, and who had escaped into the wilderness. He had become extremely strong and paranoid. If I remember correctly, my gamers solved the problem by luring him into the open and tossing a high-tensile net over him to entangle him, after which they gassed him with teargas till he was knocked out. The player group contained one or two engineering students at Chalmers, the local polytechnic university college, and those players usually approached my adventures as if they were engineering problems.

So there my fantastic journey began — and it is still going on.

Review: Some Gibson reflections

Recently I have re-read some of William Gibson’s books. I have mixed feelings about his stories. He is great at creating unsettling futures and populating them with common people who do what they can to survive while “swimming among sharks”. I am particularly fond of the Krushkova subplot in Count Zero, Yamazaki’s academic work in Virtual Light, and Chia’s journey to Tokyo in Idoru. These people get entangled in schemes that stretch far beyond their horizons.

The description of the bridge society that plays such an important role in Virtual Light and All Tomorrow’s Parties is also great sociological science fiction. Gibson lets its peculiar culture, such as the veneration of Shapely, and vertical geography appear every now and then to underline other plot elements.

But the plots are Gibson’s major problem, at least for me. It seems that the characters get so entangled in hazards that only a deus ex machina will be able to save them. And such ones appear in the form of vastly powerful virtual characters. The protagonists too often “invoke” such beings electronically (e.g. the God-Mountain in Virtual Light, the Etruscan in Idoru, the loa in Count Zero) and let them solve the final plot problems.

Pattern Recognition turned out to be a major disappointment. In the 1980s and 1990s, Gibson had had a compact style, letting the plots move forward rapidly. But when he left the field of science fiction and moved into writing thrillers taking place in the contemporary world, he started spending too much space on describing places and clothing, on long journeys hither and thither. Halfway into the story, I lost interest in the riddle of the poetic film clips. Krushkova’s quest for the “magic” boxes in Count Zero was exciting (something major being implicitly at stake), whereas Cayce’s similar plotline was bland.

I am curious about another Gibson foible: his fondness for Tokyo and London. Tokyo serves as the stage for Idoru and London for much of Mona Lisa Overdrive and Pattern Recognition. But how does a reader from one of those cities react to Gibson’s descriptions? Does he successfully evoke the genuine moods of those places? (When I read Cryptonomicom by Neal Stephenson — a novel with roots in Gibson’s stories — I was put off when two protagonists visited Sweden during World War Two. A descriptive failure. The author had simply not done his homework, creating a dissonance in my mind. But an American reader would probably not be bothered by it.)

Review: “Retribution Falls”

Living in the outskirts of a major city, I spend about one hour a day commuting by subway and bus. So I read a lot and I have decided to share my opinions of some of these “travel books”.

A few days ago, I finished Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding, book #1 in a series about captain Frey, his airship the Ketty Jay and her crew. I picked up this book at the Science Fiction Bookshop because it claims to be a dieselpunk adventure. Well, the label is partially correct. The Ketty Jay’s world is eclectic: dieselpunk airships, swashbuckling pirates, scheming renaissance-ish nobles, dirty wild-west-style towns, foul sorcery, et cetera. I see clear influences from Josh Whedon’s Firefly and the ultra-tough lawmen look like something out of Warhammer 40K. On the other hand, the story’s pirates and aristocrats seem to be inspired by pop-culture versions of the 18th century, i.e. tarpunk rather than dieselpunk.

The Ketty Jay is crewed by a motley bunch of scoundrels and drunkards, brought to the ship by the whims of a nasty Fate. Most are on the run from misfortunes or crimes. Few are likable. Their main job seems to be to survive in a crapsack world. Yes, this is a place where people generally are selfish, arrogant and/or ruthless. Living here is not for the squeamish.

The main plot of Retribution Falls has two strands. The obvious one: Captain Frey and crew become scapegoats for someone else’s assassination scheme. They spend the story trying to uncover the real culprit and thereby escaping the hangman’s noose. The less obvious one: The transformation of this ragtag bunch into a true crew with a team spirit. It does not come easy because several have good reasons to mistrust or loathe each other.

The arid world is colorful, the tech is great, some of the story twists are good, but the book still fails to enthuse me. My main objections:

1. I have a hard time feeling sympathy for the scoundrels in the crew, particularly captain Frey. I’d rather wish that his arch-nemesis captain Dracken nails him to the wall. Two crew members are somewhat likable, however: Jez the navigator, suffering unjustly from a “curse”, and Silo the engineer, an escaped slave with no known history of misdeeds.

2. Predictability. I have seen this kind of story too many times before. Too often I know what is about to happen.

3. Poor plotting. The crew members had Lady Luck helping them out too many times during their adventures. Also, when the badguys know about the existence of “gadget sorcery”, they should be smart enough to protect themselves better.

When I watch Firefly, I care for the Serenity‘s crew. I get no similar feeling when reading Retribution Falls. Which is sad, because I like the basic concept and the airships a lot.