Tuesday, June 22, 2010

SF News: The Legacy of James Tiptree

I find it amazing that it has been more than 40 years since Alice Bradley Sheldon donned the pseudonym of James Tiptree Jr. and launched herself into the Science Fiction world.  In that time, we have seen a lot of culture changes, and these days the thought of women writing SF is hardly worth batting an eyelash... or is it?

On the one hand, we still have many female authors obscuring their names through the use of initials or misleading nicknames.  I would have thought that the need to cloud an author's gender was way behind us, but apparently there are still ignoramus-es out there who will staunchly not pick up a book by a female author.  Still, authors like C.J. Cherryh, S.L. Viehl, and Rob Thurman may have a point: it looks like their sales are higher than average (though I personally suspect that this has more to do with the fact that they are all amazingly gifted writers).

On the other hand, take a walk down the Science Fiction and Fantasy section of your local book shop and look at the names of the authors.  Sure, the field is still dominated by men, but not by that wide a margin.  In fact, I would be willing to bet that we are closer to parity in the genders in the genres than anywhere else in the market!  One thing is sure: if you add in 'Paranormal Romance' to the traditional SF lists, it is likely that there are more females than males writing SF these days.

I am all for diversification, and frankly I look forward to the day when this is no longer even an issue.  Hopefully, in some Gene Roddenberry utopia, we will no longer check to see is an author is male or female, black or white, gay or straight.  When I wake up in that future, it will be glorious!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Apologies & Further delay

Greetings readers,

As most of you know, my Birthday was 6/12, and this meant that I was away for most of last week.  This week we are having renovations done at the house, and I will not have proper/regular access to the internet again until Sunday.  Updates will resume with the regular Monday through Friday schedule starting next Monday.  Thanks again for your patience.


Friday, June 4, 2010

TV & Movies: The Return of Burn Notice

Yes, I know, Burn Notice is not really science fiction, but I am a somewhat rabid fan, and since last night was the season premiere, I am going to talk about it, dag-nabbit!

Last season left us with Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan) in a super-secret prison, captured by the people who burned him, and totally without resources or allies to hand.  Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and Sam (Bruce Campbell) spent a great deal of time hunting down Michael to no avail, while Michael's mom Madeline (Sharon Gless) was being interrogated by the FBI.  The season's summer premiere manages to pick up the threads pretty much where we left off.

Our first move is to meet a new recurring character, Vaughn (Robert Wisdom), who takes the position as Michael's handler for this season.  Vaughn has tried convince Michael that the folks who burned him, while they are a morally bankrupt band of thugs, are not the really big enemy.  Who is?  Well, the evil villains who sprung Simon of course!  So what is an ex-spy cum vigilante to do?  Why, team up with the backstabbing sociopaths who burned him to get rid of the ruthless sociopaths who are using vicious psychopaths as a route to fortune.

OK, so things seem to be on a pretty even keel, with Michael tilting at windmills in the name of morality to ensure that nobody gets caught in the crossfire, working with people he does not like to accomplish goals for the greater good.  Amazingly, though, when he finally gets to return home, things are... well, pretty much business as usual.  Sam and Fiona have taken on a client, whose situation has gone from bad to horrifyingly terrible in regards to an Outlaw Biker Gang, Maddy is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and Miami seems to have become a far more dangerous place almost overnight!

While this first episode had the feeling of resetting to zero with new characters replacing old favorites, such as Vaughn replacing Tricia Helfer's Carla, there is definitely a ratcheting of the tension going on.  While things were somewhat back to normal in the premiere, the fact that the reality of her son's profession has finally hit home with Maddy, the fact that Fiona finally seems back to normal, and the fact that Sam seems downright somber, show that there is a lot going on that will be explored this season.  In addition, the episode ends with Michael accidentally burning a spy!

Tune in, because this season looks to be an awesome thrill ride!

In other news: what was up with Royal Pains?  I really like this show, but for some reason it was like the director was barely present to make things work.  All of the scenes were horrifyingly over-light, most of the dialog seemed stilted and designed to remind us of what went on last season, and the acting was not up to the standards of this great cast.  It got better as the episode went on, but this was a much touted season premiere, and should be an excuse to use the best of everything to hook folks.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Gaming: Dark Heresy

OK, so what with power outages, computer problems, Internet outages, contractors, and other nonsense taking up my time the last few weeks, I have been a bit remiss on updating.  As such, though I promised a series on the Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) Warhammer 40000 roleplaying systems, they have yet to materialize.  Well, wait no longer!

Dark Heresy emerged onto the shelves from the dark abyss of Games Workshop's Black Library after years of rumors and anticipation in the year 2008, and it was promptly announced that Black Library would no longer produce RPGs.  This bizarre announcement came on the heels of the Dark Heresy Core Rulebook having sold out of almost every vendor, and demands for reprints pounding at the unprepared gates of the Black Library like a demented horde of Visigoths desperate to enter Rome.  Why?  Well, in spite of fears that Dark Heresy would just be an updated version of the spectacular failure that was the Inquisitor RPG, it turned out that Dark Heresy was breathtakingly well thought out and (most importantly) simple!

While most of the community railed and hurled various and sundry insults to the fools at the Black Library, Games Workshop worked out a deal with the good folks at FFG for a second printing and handling of the licensed material.  FFG, seeing the clamor for product, responded quickly with new prints of the books, and promises that supplements were on their way.  These promises were quickly delivered on, with new releases like the Purge the Unclean, The Inquisitors Handbook, Creatures Anathema, and many others popping onto the shelves like Daemons recently emerged from the Warp itself.

The question really is, what made Dark Heresy a hit?  In my opinion it was a combination of factors, whose gestalt was far more powerful than the sum of its parts would suggest.  Let's take a look:

The Rules
First of all, Dark Heresy uses a straight percentile system for all of its rules, and unlike many other similar percentile systems (Chaosium, Runequest, etc) there are no other dice other than the percent dice and a d10 (on the off chance that you might be using an old d100 for percents).  Unlike Chaosium or Runequest, which treats skills as independent of abilities, Dark Heresy uses abilities as a base, with proficiency providing bonuses.  This means that there is an actual corollary between any given skill set and a specific ability score, making characters with a higher scores more likely to succeed in checks that are best suited to those scores.

In addition to a very clean set of mechanics for skills and abilities, characters gain access to Talents, which provide additional benefits in conjunction with certain skills, abilities, and actions.  Talents are akin to Feats in the Dungeons & Dragons d20 system, and are a good addition to the standard percentile system.

Character advancement in Dark Heresy is equally logical and simple.  Every time characters are awarded experience for their actions, they put that experience into a pool to buy advancements with.  Available advancements depend greatly on Rank, and once the character has spent enough experience to acquire a new rank, they are able to purchase the advancements available for that rank.

The Background
While the game is set in the traditional Warhammer 40000 universe, with all that this implies, Dark Heresy itself explores a completely new corner of that universe.  The Core Rulebook provides a general overview for those unfamiliar with the universe, and a more in-depth look at the Calixis Sector, where Acolytes are likely going to be adventuring.  Though not exhaustive, by any means, the gazetteers for the various worlds in the Core book will provide even novice GMs with enough information to run a good game.

Depending on the Inquisitorial faction, and sub-faction, that the acolytes are working for, GMs have a cornucopia of options for adventuring.  Simply learning about the organization of the Inquisitor that the players are serving could be a treacherous and perilous experience, after all.  For those who do not want to go to the trouble, time, and effort of building adventures from scratch, though, there are fantastic adventures and modules around for acolytes of all varying degrees of experience.

The Support
Fantasy Flight Games has done a great job of supporting their products.  With timely, well written, and thoughtful Errata to ensure consistency, FFG has done its utmost to provide a great balance for players.  Add to this a steady stream of excellent supplements has provided both players and GMs with tons of material covering all manner of situations and scenarios, and you have a really well integrated infrastructure for players to utilize.  The flexibility of the system and products makes it easy to use and adapt to cover pretty much anything that you want to do.

Overall, I think that the experience provided by Dark Heresy is excellent, and has stood FFG in good stead in the development of their first companion system to Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader.

Dark Heresy products are available for purchase at New Moon Comics.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Book Review: The Well of Souls by Benjamin Tate

Traditional Fantasy tends to fall into a few broad categories: there are the standard pseudo-Arthurian/Chivalry stories of knights; there are the Tolkien-esque quest stories of destroying an artifact or surmounting a great evil; there are the various ethnic folk tale types of story; and then there are those stpries that cannot be easily pigeonholed into one category or another. In some cases these stories are an amalgam of all these types of tale, and others the book is blazing a trail into a new area of the genre.  Well of Souls by Benjamin Tate is one of the latter, a bold new adventure that does not properly fall into the handy descriptors one generally uses when discussing Fantasy.

Starting a story off with the protagonist getting the piss kicked out of him (literally), is not something that we see often in a story where the lead character is starting out at the age of 12, but while it is not unusual in and of itself, the reason for the beating is.  You see, Colin Harten has recently arrived in the New World, a continent discovered on the other side of the Arduan Ocean from Colin's homeland of Andover, and he and his family are refugees fleeing trouble back home, like so many others.  The main problem is that they are in a town run by a Family that is a rival of the Family that they served back home, and this means that work is scarce and there is a lot of discrimination to go around.

In spite of this inauspicious beginning, things quickly descend from bad to worse, and the next thing we know, the Harten Family is heading up a party of Settlers heading deeper into the unexplored inner continent.  On their trek they are accompanied by a great cast of diverse and interesting characters, and we watch as the journey matures Colin, strains relationships, and throws Walter (Colin's young nemesis and bastard son of the mayor of the town where the story begins) from official leader of the expedition to irritating and loathed baggage.  When the party of Settlers finally meet up with the local natives, battle ensues and Colin's life is forever changed.

Flash forward 60 years and the world has changed a great deal as Colin returns to find that the former provincial cities he knew as a 12 year old child have gained their independence.  In addition, the horrifyingly brutal plainsmen and the strange friendly natives have been warring with each other and with the new kingdom unceasingly since.  The friendly Alvritshai, who tried desperately to help Colin in the earlier stages of the book, turn out to have betrayed the human Kingdom after decimating the hordes of the Dwarren (the brutal plainsmen) in a great battle.  Colin must help his friend, Aeren of the Alvritshai, to forge peace between the warring races as a great evil awakens to threaten all of them with utter annihilation.

Well, so we have all manner of story represented in Well of Souls.  Amongst the Alvritshai we see the Chivalric, honor bound race of warriors, fighting against cruelty and barbarism in the form of the Dwarren.  Amongst the Dwarren we see Fantasy more in keeping with the ethnic and primitivist styles, as we see a race that combines elements of Gallic culture with the Horse-culture of the Native Americans of the Great Plains.  In the Human Kingdom we see the viciousness of personal and political infighting, as well as an analogue for the American Revolution and secession from the British Empire.  In Colin's own story we see the traditional Artifact empowerment and addiction leading to the character teetering on the brink of need and desire to prevent that artifact from being turned to evil purposes.  In addition to this, we have a Frontier adventure spirit in the book that is generally very rare in the realm of Fantasy, some genuinely horrifying moments with the Dwarren raids and the Shadows, and more than a few great political and inter-personal twists and betrayals.

THAC0: 4
Even if you do not like Fantasy, this book has a lot of appeal.  Benjamin Tate takes a few seeds, plants them, and really nurtures them in a way that makes the book truly flower on its own.  Great characters, smart dialogue, taut suspense, and some twists that the reader will definitely not see coming punctuate a book that demonstrates what a master storyteller can do with a great idea.  Personally I am really looking forward to book two of the trilogy.

Pick up an autographed copy of Well of Souls at Borders Books and Music in Ramsey, NJ!  It is well worth the money.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

SF News: The World Science Festival

June 2nd - 6th, 2010
New York City, NY
Up until this morning I was totally unaware of the massive event happening right across the river in NY.  What is this event?  Well, the World Science Festival!  Sadly, I cannot get out to support this worthy effort myself, however I felt it important to put the information out there for our members so those who are interested can go out and enjoy the fine work of these fantastic folks.
Wednesday June 2nd, 2010 from 7p - 9p
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
Join Alan Alda, Yo-yo Ma, Kelli O'Hara, and many others as they honor Stephen Hawking in a star studded event.  Former Ballet star cum producer Damian Woetzel sets the stage for a truly spectacular event as the Orchestra of St. Lukes debuts the world premier of Icarus at the Edge of Time.  This looks to be an outrageous and amazing performance!

Check out all of the World Science Festival's events, listed by date, and see if you can make it out and support our friends in the scientific community!

Here are a few events that Jessica Nolfo, the representative of the festival who forwarded me this press information, thought would be of particular interest to our members:

Thursday, June 3, 7PM
Are we alone? It’s a question that has obsessed us for centuries, and now we have the technology to do more than wonder. Scientists on the hunt for distant planets and extraterrestrial intelligence will take us on
their expeditions into faraway galaxies and barely visible realms. Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse will journey to the brink of discovery with Jill Tarter, David Charbonneau, and Steven Squyres to contemplate what it would mean to have company in the cosmos.
Moderator: Sir Paul Nurse

Friday, June 4, 7PM
The original Star Trek and its numerous successors were far ahead of their time, but just how far? Will science eventually catch up to this series’ nearly five-decade-old creations? With Lawrence Krauss, Eric Horvitz, Seth Shostak and moderator Faith Salie (Sarina Douglas on Deep Space Nine), explore the plausibility of scientific phenomena from the Star Trek universe, including warp speed, time travel, humanoid aliens and whether anyone in our universe will be "beamed up" by transporter anytime soon.

Galapagos Art Space, 16 Main St. @ Water St.
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Friday, May 21, 2010

TV & Movies: Iron Man 2

In a world where sequels come in two flavors... this sequel does not really break the boundaries.   Seriously, though, as we all know, there really are only two forms of sequels: everything the same but more (a la Alien to Aliens) or everything the same but different (a la Predator to Predator 2).  While Iron Man 2  may seem like its a case of everything the same but different, it is more a case of everything the same but more.

Why do I say this?  Well they both start off the same: Tony is high on life, on top of the world, and the man to be envied (Iron Man he is showing off his Jericho weapon and making money, Iron Man 2 he is showing off his Stark Expo and making money), but he has a problem (Iron Man he is captured by terrorists and given super pacemaker, Iron Man 2 he is captured by congress and is poisoning himself with super pacemaker v3.1).  Things start looking up (Iron Man Tony escapes from evil terrorists, Iron Man 2 Ivan Vanko is arrested), but wait, there are more problems (Iron Man Tony announces no more weapons programs, Iron Man 2 Congress announces no more Tony Stark).  Relationships become strained (Iron Man Tony fights a group of mean terrorists and alienates Rhodes, Iron Man 2 Tony throws a party and alienates Rhodes who becomes Warmachine and kicks Tony's butt).  Corporate skullduggery commences (Iron Man Obadiah Stane starts pushing Tony into a corner in the boardroom, Iron Man 2 Justin Hammer begins backing Tony into a corner with his Vanko designed Droid army).  Ooooops wait, Girl saves the day (Iron Man Pepper Potts figures out skullduggery and brings SHIELD cavalry, Iron Man 2 Natasha Romanoff figures out Hammer's dumb plan and brings Happy Hogan for whup-ass session), but Iron Man must fight his foe (Iron Man big battle with Stane, Iron Man 2 big battle with Vanko and Droids).  Iron Man wins!  Roll Credits.

Yes, it seems like the film was an exciting rehash of the first film, but for some reason, it works pretty well.  You have a lot of the elements of 'the same but more', but the slight variances in the story make the film much more interesting.  The hordes of Hammer Droids make for a slightly different feel to the story, but that is alleviated by the introduction of Warmachine, who offsets the villains' numerical advantage.  While I would not say that the second is in any way better or more entertaining than the first film, it certainly is more.  More explosions, more action, more romance, more technobabble, more Sam Rockwell, more villains, more drunkenness, more girls, more characters, more subplots, more Samuel L. Jackson, more shots of Robert Downey Jr's chest... OK, so it's not all good stuff.  The way I look at it is Iron Man 2 is to Iron Man as Batman Returns is to Batman.

THAC0: 6
Obviously an action packed crowd pleaser, this is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon without having to think or figure out stuff.  Pretty standard action movie fare, though I will admit to liking the original film better.