Cities of the Underdark

Underground cities and cave systems are common in fictional worlds, both literary and game-related. CNN reports (with pictures) about several such places in the real world, from China to Britain — link >>>

The City of Caves under Nottingham, UK

Dieselpunk Hollow Earth

A dieselpunk rendition of a Burroughsian Hollow Earth. Adventures await the daring explorer. (Click on the picture to see a larger version.)

I found this delightful picture at the Hollow World blog (link >>>), a place dedicated to daredevil adventures inside Earth in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Pellucidar stories, Lin Carter’s Zanthodon series, and Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Urbs Mobilis — the Nomadic Town

Traditionally on Earth, the pastoral nomadic lifestyle stands in opposition to the sedentary city lifestyle. Ibn Khaldoun, an Arab philosopher of the 14th century, was the first to formalize that observation in social science terms in his book Muqaddimah, in which he analyzed the rise and fall of medieval Arab realms. However, technology occasionally provides the right tools to overcome constraints posed by nature.

Here is a article on how to construct nomadic towns with technology that is only slightly more advanced that what Earth possesses today — link >>>

So such a construct would fit into the worldscapes of SF-games like Traveller (the ship-borne towns in Nomads of the World-Ocean are a maritime equivalent), Star Wars D6 (consider the Jawas’ village-on-tracks in Episode IV), and 2300AD, where human corporations exploit alien worlds for their natural resources. The 2012 movie John Carter introduced the “walking” city of Zodanga, a more spectacular-looking science-fantasy version for Barsoom (the “Mars” of Edgar Rice Burroughs). And the picture below shows us a dieselpunk rendition. Ergo, this is a flexible concept that suits plenty of SF sub-genres.

Semper mobilis — the motto of the roaming cities.

Review: “Jane Carver of Waar”

The title Jane Carver of Waar was irresistible when I spotted this book in a friend’s bookshelf. A few subway journeys later (I read when commuting between home and office) I had reached its end and arrived at a clear conclusion: its author Nathan Long delivers the goods, i.e. a successful parody of the classical John Carter of Mars genre with plenty of well-established tropes:

A weird distant planet — check
Unexplained interplanetary journey — check
Six-limbed barbarians — check
Humans of unusual coloring — check
Swashbuckling — check
Airships — check
Pirates — check
Honor before reason — check
True love™ — check
Dastardly deeds — check
Damsel in distress — check
Slavery — check
Gladiators — check
A hero with extraordinary strength and leaping ability — check

However, several Carterian tropes get subverted. The protagonist Jane Carver is a tall and muscular working-class biker, a petty criminal with a few jail stints and a former private in Airborne Rangers. She is uneducated, streetwise and crude, which is reflected in the language of the story, told in a rough first-person prose. Sexism and the associated shoddy treatment of woman are handled in ways that would have been impossible in earlier works of the genre; the author does not mince words when he describes a pre-industrial society in which commoners are treated like dirt by nobles and becoming an outlaw appears to be the best escape from oppression.

While being chased by Californian cops for man-slaughter, Carver stumbles over a small device that teleports her to the distant world of Waar. How and why is never explained (and in this kind of story it is of little importance). She arrives in the middle of a kidnapping scene (in which strange-colored humans fight with swords), rescues a survivor, gets captured and enslaved by a steppe tribe of “tiger centaurs”, escapes, gains other allies, gets embroiled in some aristocratic power-struggles, serves as a gladiator, and performs many acrobatic deeds to rescue a hapless damsel in distress, over whose hand in marriage several high-ranking men fight. “Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes” appears to be Carver’s motto. And there is a neat reference to the “War God”, a John-Carter-style terrestrial character who had spent some time on Waar 150 years ago, causing much havoc and turmoil before he vanished.

An amusing twist is that Carver, being solidly plebeian, frequently gets annoyed with the nobility’s code of honor and pretensions. Her speech, peppered with 21st-century popcultural references, is on the other hand equally frequently incomprehensible to her two aristocratic comrades-in-arms. Carver is a competent low-level superhero, whereas the two Waarian men that accompany her are foppish and notably less effectual. Their chief adversary, fortunately, lives up to the reader’s expectations: a blackguard straight out of the pulps.

I give Jane Carver of Waar four red planets out of five. It is exactly the adventure it claims to be. The sole shortcoming is that the plot never surprised me.

There is a sequel, Swords of Waar, and I will be happy to read it in the near future.

The Tarzan Centennial

Edgar Rice Burroughs seems to have had an annus mirabilis in 1912; that year saw the appearance of both John Carter and Tarzan. For any lover of science fiction and action adventures, these two characters serves as the gate-keepers of a new “20th-century” literary phase. Burroughs was a hack writer and admitted openly that he had started writing yarns to earn money for his poor family. But he possessed a peculiar flair for story-telling that still attracts readers.

The ecology of literature is vicious — look at what other action characters from the Edwardian era you will find in 21st-century bookshop. Sherlock Holmes and perhaps one or two more? The others have long since faded out of sight by getting outdated.

Washington Post today has an article about the Tarzan centennial in the literary world. The author has a few pertinent points to what are the particular qualities of the Jungle Lord.
Link >>>

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 Year Is 1896 and the Place Is … Mars

In 1989, the now defunct American game publisher GDW produced an odd role-playing game called Space 1889. A mix of ideas from Jules Verne, HG Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett and Percival Lowell: Earth-built ethercraft exploring the solar system, whose planets are as they should be in classic adventure fiction, that is Mars with canals and decaying civilizations, Venus with jungles, etcetera.

During the 1990s my game group ran on and off a lengthy campaign taking the adventurers to odd corners of the solar system, including a Doyle-ish London, an Oscarian Stockholm and a Tolstoyan Odessa. It was the most amusing RPG experience the gang has ever had. But when my kids started to arrive around the turn of the millennium, my priorities changed, I ceased to be gamemaster and the campaign went into limbo.

This December it has been resurrected. It is currently 10 November 1896 and the Czar’s cousin Grand Duchess Alexandra Ivanovna arrives at the Red Planet. Duke Gorklimskii (Иван Карлович Горклимский), Russian resident-commissioner in the occupied city of Gorklimsk, hosts a splendid reception for his distant relative. Old enemies lurk in nearby cities and we fear that the rabble-rouser Madwaan will ignite another Martian revolt against the hated Earthmen. This promises to be an exciting winter.

My Mars (3)

The Mars of wonders ceased to be an active literary trope in the early 1960s, when Leigh Brackett published her last shortstories of that type. They aptly described how Mars was transformed by the arrival of Terran technology: its dramatic era ended and the red planet became a part of an interplanetary civilization dominated by its blue sibling. Real-world astronomy had simply advanced too far for the fiction to be viable for the readers. Later, a few writers experimented with books in the genre, but then only as deliberate pastiches (e.g. Michael Moorcock, Lin Carter and S M Stirling).

On the other hand, there have been several gameworlds published with wonderous Mars as the venue: GURPS Mars, Space 1889 and other. Some designers go for the Burroughsian “high” style, whereas e.g. GURPS Mars is more suitable for the Brackettian “low” style. When I wrote the Red Sand (Röd Sand) campaign world for Saga Games and the Fenix magazine a few years ago, I deliberately aimed for the low style, because that gives better openings for adventures. I also adhered to the D-list of components that I introduced in my previous blog post.

Three years ago, on September 2, 2008, I flew from New Delhi to Kabul. I had gotten a six-months contract as a civilian press officer in a EU mission in war-torn Afghanistan. When the jetliner crossed the Hindukush mountains, I looked out at a landscape that was utterly alien: desiccated brown mountains, peak after peak, as far as the eye could reach. When the plane approached Kabul and descended towards the ground, I spotted ruins and scars of war around the city. To me it was like seeing a shadow of the Mars of my dreams. Half-way there, so to speak. Well, at the ground level, today’s Kabul was very much an terrestrial city with Nokia cellphones, Toyota cars and Kalashnikov-toting policemen and soldiers.

But still, that impression from high above the ground remains in my heart. Then what to do with it? I cannot make Brackettian pastiches, because they would not ring true — I do not write hardboiled pulp prose. Planet Mars is another thing today, too, the abode of the hard science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson et al. So instead, I will have to find another way of putting my dreams to paper. I am working on that.

Addendum: One of Leigh Brackett’s gritty Martian stories from Project Gutenberg (link >>>)