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. 

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Gaming: The Fantasy Flight Juggernaut

There are a few big names in the game industry; Wizards of the Coast, Games Workshop, Privateer Press, Rackham Entertainment, Fantasy Flight Games.  Strangely enough, seasons change and systems change, and companies grow or fall, but overall the industry really doesn't move much off true center. 

A few years ago, Wizards of the Coast was high and mighty, Games Workshop was losing money hand over fist, and Fantasy Flight Games was a middling distributor specializing in Board and Card games with few original product offerings of its own.  Now, things have changed.  Wizards of the Coast is flailing about, Games Workshop is strong and profitable, and Fantasy Flight is moving in all sorts of new directions with bold and innovative product lines.

Strangely enough, Fantasy Flight's ascension started with a misstep on the part of Games Workshop's Black Library Press division.  Black Library over-extended itself in the production of the new Roleplaying Game Dark Heresy, and was forced to abandon the ambitious project.  Seeing a potentially lucrative project before them, Fantasy Flight Games snatched up the property and began its own development project to expand Dark Heresy.

After failing at a gamble with the distribution of Rakham's AT-43 and Confrontation lines, Fantasy Flight struck gold with the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy systems.  In addition to Roleplaying games, Fantasy Flight smashed the boundaries flat with new boardgames like Warhammer Chaos in the Old World and Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy, card games like Warhammer Invasion, Chaos Marauders, and the upcoming Death Angels which is based on the famous Space Hulk board game, and roleplaying games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 5th edition, Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch, which is getting ready for wide release very soon.

In addition to its massively lucrative Warhammer licensing projects, Fantasy Flight has moved forward on a number of other ambitious projects.  The Eagle and the Lion is a wargaming style of board game similar to the now famous Tannhauser and Dust games that allows you to fight battles between Napoleon and Wellington.  Speaking of Tannhauser, an expansion for that is now in the works.  Constantinopolis is another awesome concept game of city and Empire building.  Meanwhile, pushing the boundaries back into games of the past, Fantasy Flight has also announced the development of games like Dragonheart and Dungeonquest, which will bring even more attention and attraction from the nostalgia market.

The question I have is: Is Fantasy Flight's expansion sustainable, or are they on the path to over-extension?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book Review: Soulless by Gail Carriger

I have often lamented that there are just not enough bustles, corsets, or ugly hats in traditional Gothic Horror Fantasy stories.  Thankfully, just in time, I was rescued from this wasteland of decolletage by the wasp-waisted wit if Victorian-era horror writer Gail Carriger and her new book, Soulless.

Having seen a release for the book from Orbit Press a few weeks ago, I decided to recommend it to our Suspense Central Moderator, Aurelia Long, as a potential candidate for August's New Kids on the Bloch: New Visions of Gothic Horror Theme.  When it was decided that this book would be the August selection, I immediately tore into it like a spinster into a treacle tart.

The book itself is the standard 'series starter book', replete with introductions of all the characters, set-up of the mechanics of the universe, and an explanation of who the opposing and allied forces are.  In the opening scene we meet Miss Alexia Tarabotti, English spinster extraordinary, and in the first two pages we see every paragraph, actually near every sentence, start of with the notable young woman's name.  This is incredibly off-putting, and were I made of less stern stuff, I would likely have stopped right there and then.  I am grateful that I persevered, though, for the rest of the book more than made up for the tedious two introductory pages.

Miss Tarabotti is the product of her mother's first marriage to an Italian emigre, is a notable bluestocking, and a preternatural.  What, you might well ask, is a preternatural?  Well,  a preternatural is a being who emits an aura that turns off the supernatural powers of Ghosts, Vampires, and Werewolves, rendering such supernatural creatures wholly mortal and, thus, easily dispatched.  In addition to her immunity from the supernatural predators, Miss Tarabotti has a brilliant mind, and has immersed herself in the sciences of Aetherics and Biology, as well as literature of a... less discrete sort.  While this might not seem important, trust me, it will be.

Surrounding our Victorian heroine in 1870's London is a cast of bizarrely well fleshed out characters.  As a point of fact, one has a tendency to forget that this is a first book by a new author, so well turned out are her characters.  From the gruffly romantic werewolf Lord Connal Maccon to his Pack Beta and partner at the BUR (Bureau of Unnatural Registry, where supernaturals are required to register) Professor Lyall and the mysterious and foppish dandy Vampire rove Lord Akeldama, we get an excellent taste of the supernatural, or nighttime set as the daylighters call them.  Looking into the daytime folk, we see one of the most amazing characters to ever grace the page, Miss Jill Hisselpenny (another spinster with a proclivity towards eye-searingly ugly hats), swanning about the society  the vapid and irritating pages with members of the Loontwill family (Miss Tarabotti's mama's family through her second marriage to the miser, Squire Loontwill), and the members of the Hypocras Club.

The setting itself is somewhat familiar, but definitely different in all the right places, somewhat like a proper Victorian dress should be. London in the 1870's has a few bands of Vampires, Werewolves, and Ghosts, who have apparently been living publicly since the time of Henry VIII, what they refer to as the end of the 'Dark Ages'.  Unlike much of Europe, and the rest of the world, which is divided on the supernatural issue, the Church of England has not taken a stance against the supernaturals, and has instead welcomed them into society, even going so far as to place a Vampire and a Werewolf as specific councilors to her Majesty the Queen (the Potentate and the Dewan in order to be precise).

THAC0: 5

From the opening scene with the poorly dressed and gauche Vampire to the various climaxes that conclude the book, Soulless could well be called Relentless because it simply never lets up.  The action is ratcheted up every scene, the suspense ratchets up every chapter, and the mystery deepens with every sentence.  While this book, and it sequels, will likely be more appealing to those with a historical bent, I feel that any fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sookie Stackhouse, and/or Harry Dresden will be enchanted by this book as much as fans of HG Wells and Jules Verne will.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

SF News: Is SyFy Salvagable?

I know that I do a lot of complaining about SyFy and its awful programming, but I got into a debate the other day and found myself defending the channel.  That's right, ever the optimist, I was trying to explain how SyFy is not all bad.  While you are busy choking down your laughter, let's take a look at the pro's and con's of SyFy:

Good shows like Caprica, Eureka, Haven, Merlin, Sanctuary, Stargate Universe, and Warehouse 13
Rerun blocks of good shows like Invasion, Jeremiah, Jericho, Star Trek: TNG, Threshold, and the Twilight Zone.
Cool Miniseries and Programming like Alice, Riverworld, and more

Poor promotion of products outside of the SyFy Channel.
WWE NXT?  Really?
SharktopusMega Pirannah?  SyFy Original Movies... 'nuff said.
Destination Truth, Estate of Panic, Ghost Hunters (and its multitudinous spin-offs), Mary Knows Best, Outer Space Astronauts, and Scare Tactics.

OK, so the picture is not so rosy, but the fact is that SyFy is walking a tightrope between Dreck and Drama!  The problem with this statement: so is every single other channel on TV (with the possible exceptions of USA and TNT).  Not every channel is being held to such scrutiny as SyFy is, mainly because SF fans tend to be very demanding and easily upset by things that they feel are 'talking down' to them.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Week at a Glance: May 17 to May 24

...Aaaaand we're back.  I have to apologize for last week.  Things got kind of crazy, and I managed to fall behind on every single one of my projects.  First and foremost I would like to let everyone know that I will be writing a series of articles for Bell of Lost Souls regarding the application of military philosophy to wargaming.  In the mean time: here is what we can look forward to this week.

In the SFSNNJ:
Wednesday we meet up at Borders Books & Music in Ramsey, NJ for Moderator Barry Weinberger's Films to Come 4-Star movie discussion group.  Among the topics of discussion will be Iron Man 2, Robin Hood, and the top grossing films of 2010, as well as a look ahead to the awesome line-up of genre films due out in June, including Toy Story 3.  On Saturday, our Heroes & Rogues Gaming Group will host the next chapter in the Rogue Trader "Wolves in the Fold" Campaign (interested parties, please visit http://www.sfsnnj.com/Groups/HNR.html).

In the Movies:
Last week saw the introduction of Robin Hood to the box office, but this new Ridley Scott/Russel Crowe vehicle just did not have the drive to smash through the walls of powerhouse blockbuster Iron Man 2.  Given the potential staying power of Iron Man 2 it might be a worry for Dreamworks as Shrek Forever After is due to come out this Friday.  Given the longevity and popularity of How to Train Your Dragon, this looks to be a banner year for the Dreamworks Animation team, and even if it does not top out at the box office, it cannot help but swell the coffers of studio.

On DVD & Blu-Ray:
Kind of a light week for DVD & Blu-Ray releases, but we still have a few notable genre titles to choose from.  Outlander is a strange cocktail of comic-book, historical, and science fiction starring Jim Caviezel, and The Spy Next Door pits Jackie Chan against kids in the espionage spoof (though how they explain an obvious Chinese actor with a thick Chinese accent working for the professional paranoiacs at the CIA really pushes this into the realm of Fantasy).  Clash of the Olympians compiles 16 different sword & sandals epics into one big (and surprisingly well priced) bundle.  Classic films on DVD brings us Gamera and The Navy vs The Night Monster.  In TV releases to DVD & Blu-Ray we have the classic Greatest American Hero as well as SyFy Channel's Ghost Hunters: Military Investigations.

In Gaming:
Games Workshop's Forgeworld studios keeps on putting out the hits, with Imperial Armour vol 8: The Raid on Kastorel Novem as well as a number of new models for Orks, Raven Guard, and Elysian Drop Troops.  Fantasy Flight announced the upcoming release of Death Angels, a Card based version of the classic Space Hulk game, as well as new editions and add-ons for Ingenius, Tide of Iron, and Tannhauser, and completely new projects like Dragonheart, Dungeonquest, and Constantinopolis.  In Video Games we mainly have the release of Super Mario Galaxy II to occupy the hands and eyes of gamers, but rest assured that there is more on the way soon!

In Books:
This week sees some interesting new releases in the genre book section, including the latest from Robin Hobb, Dragon Haven.  A few other books hitting the shelves will be such selections as Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth, Stealing Fire by Jo Graham, and Genesis by Bernard Beckett, but the most important release this week is bound to be George R.R. Martin's latest short story collection, Warriors, with selections from Naomi Novik, Diana Gabaldon, David Weber, and many more.

On the Blog:
Tuesday: SF News: Is SyFy Salvagable?
Wednesday: Book Review: Soulless by Gail Carriger
Thursday: Gaming: The Fantasy Flight Juggernaut
Friday: TV & Movies: Iron Man 2

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

SF News: Is the Mid-List Really Shrinking?

For years many people have argued that the genre sections of book stores have been shrinking and the 'mid-list' selection, the level of writers that includes most non-bestselling authors, has been decreasing.  The question, is this really true, or are we seeing a simple reaction of greater diversity penetrating the genre section?  Also, how do we prove this one way or the other?

First, the problem that we really have to get over is that the internet allows us access to organizations like Bookview Cafe, Kobe, and Amazon.com.  Even if the shelf space at book stores is shrinking, the fact that there are literally hundreds of books available for devices like iPads, Kindles, and even smart phones that are simply not on the shelves.  More and more of the mid-list seems to be available in these formats, the simple statement

In addition to this, we have an amazing diaspora of genre titles across traditionally opaque lines.  Science Fiction novels are turning up in Mystery, Literature, and Romance sections, and the reverse is also true.  Many mid-list authors, like Barbara Hambly, Jackie Kessler, and S.L. Viehl, are turning up in different sections of the bookstores, and, even though their works are very obviously SF, Horror, or Fantasy, their shelf placement belies their content.

So the question remains, is the mid-list shrinking, or only our perception of it?

This week in the SFSNNJ:
Monday: Suspense Central discusses Replay by Ken Grimwood
Wednesday: Drawing A Crowd discusses Time Travel and Comics
Saturday: Call of Cthulu!
For event details check out http://www.sfsnnj.com

Saturday, May 8, 2010

TV & Movies: Come On Get Happy

First of all, I have to apologize for the delay in posting, and for missing the past few Mondays.  I have had a number of Monday issues of late, and will be changing the schedule accordingly since I need to spend most of my Mondays getting stuff ready to take to the Dump on Tuesday (I'm sure you really wanted to know that).  Anyway, on to more interesting subjects...

A few weeks ago, advertisements began cropping up for the new ABC show, Happy Town.  Buzz started up, and most of us groaned and dug in for Harper's Island redux, irritated and annoyed by what blatantly seemed like another try at making an edgy little limited season mystery story.  Thankfully, while last season's hacker's delight was a predictable, tedious, over-wrought bloodbath, Happy Town is cut from quite different cloth.

With a look and feel reminiscent of early Stephen King or Peter Straub, Happy Town seeks to blaze a new trail in the supernatural and horror genres.  When asked to describe the show, I often tell folks to imagine a town from any Stephen King book.  Now imagine that instead of the town burning down at the end of the book, the strange events just stop, and the people of the town just try to go back to living their lives and they forget the horrors of what happened.  The problem is that you cannot ignore the past, because eventually it will come back to get you.

With only two weeks into the show, we really don't have much in the way of information, but what we are learning is all about the dynamics of the characters.  In a town full of secrets, where nothing is as it seems and everyone has a few skeletons in their closets, the introduction of outside elements to disrupt things makes for even greater drama.  Of course, you cannot really go wrong with a show where the sheriff cuts off his own hand while muttering gibberish.

I would definitely head over to ABC.com and check out the first two episodes.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gaming: Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch

Throughout the course of the month of May I will be taking some time to explore the world of Warhammer 40,000 through the lens of Fantasy Flight's series of Roleplaying Games set in the grim darkness of the far future.

First off, I am am sure that some of you are all aching for a bit of background, and I will endeavor to supply you with that before I elaborate.  In 2008, Games Workshop, through its Black Library Publishing division, released the first true roleplaying game set in the universe of Games Workshop's world famous and highly popular Warhammer 40,000 universe.  The game, set 38000 years in a future where the human race struggles for supremacy amid both alien and supernatural threats, was then picked up by Fantasy Flight Games in the US, who began a massive program of development for the system.  Given its amazing initial successes, Fantasy Flight began a full fledged program of expansion and support and created an ancillary game, released in late 2009, called Rogue Trader.  Even greater sales and successes followed the release of Rogue Trader, and Fantasy Flight began development of Deathwatch, which is scheduled for release this summer.

Now, I know what you are thinking: how can you have three different games in the same setting?!  Very easily, in point of fact.  The Universe of Warhammer 40,000 is epic in its porportions to begin with, and the simple fact is that each of the games fills a somewhat unique sub-genre within the setting.  Let's take a look:

Dark Heresy: Characters, referred to as Acolytes, are doing the holy work of the Imperial Inquisition, rooting out enemies of humanity wherever they go.  Dark Heresy allows players to create Acolytes from any of the three major orders of the Inquisition (Ordo Xenos hunts aliens, Ordo Malleus hunts daemons, and Ordo Hereticus hunts witches and traitors), and provides a look at the lowest levels of society as the players work their way up in their masters' organization.  Well supported with many supplemental books and adventures, Dark Heresy provides a fantastic gateway into the Warhammer 40K universe for roleplayers who are uninterested in the tabletop wargame.  This game is good for players who are interested in sleuthing adventures and thriller/suspense/intrigue campaigns.

Rogue Trader: Unlike Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader characters, referred to as Explorers, are not working directly for the government of the Empire of Man, but are rather members of an interstellar trading cartel known as a Rogue Trader Dynasty.  Rogue Traders have been a staple of the Warhammer 40K universe from the beginning, and this game added a whole new dimension and power level to the game.  While it is compatible with Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader has a slightly different feel and structure to the adventures, as well as innovative new ways of generating characters and solving problems.  In addition, giving players command of a starship, and the ability to pick and choose Endeavours (the Rogue Trader equivalent of missions or projects) makes this a far more advanced game for players who are looking for a type of 'Pirates in Space' feel.  Though the Core book only came out last November, we already have set of supporting adventures (see Rogue Trader: Lure of the Expanse) with a great deal more on the way.

Deathwatch: Now we get  into the nitty-gritty of what really makes Warhammer 40,000 a popular game: Space Marines.  Deathwatch puts players in the role of Space Marines seconded to the Ordo Xenos, the Inquisitorial branch dedicated to wiping out aliens, and looks to be head and shoulders above the power levels of the prior two books.  While the game has not yet been released, we have seen a great deal about the setting and the options for building a Deathwatch Kill Team Marine, including the use of specific Space Marine Chapter backgrounds.  Unlike the previous games, Deathwatch is likely to be focused on combat and will definitely appeal to the dungeon-crawl, shoot-em-up type of player who likes killing aliens of all stripes.

So what are these articles going to deal with?  Well, next week I will talk more about the specifics of Dark Heresy, game mechanics, supplements, and overall conceptualization.  The week after I will do the same for Rogue Trader, and the week after that I will round up the rumors on the forthcoming Deathwatch system.

Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and their supplements are available for purchase at New Moon Comics.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Book Review: The Lost Fleet: Victorious by Jack Campbell

About two decades ago, at the close of the first Gulf War, the genre world started a love affair with military SF that lasted through most of the 1990's and into the early 2000's when it was supplanted by Paranoir (a.k.a. Paranormal Mystery or Paranormal Detective stories).  Happily enough for me, authors like David Weber, John Ringo, and Scott Westerfeld keep on writing military SF even though the genre has moved on to a new darling.  Of equal good fortune for those who like this sort of story, new book series do come along from time to time.  I know that I have reviewed the Lost Fleet series previously, however I just finished the most recent entry by Jack Campbell and I wanted to share my impressions.

First of all, one must realize that this is part of an overall series, and that a lot of dramatic tension is built up over the course of the prior books.  To bring you up to speed:
The Alliance and the Syndicated Worlds have been fighting a brutal war for over a century.  The war started with an ambush that forced Captain Jack Geary to abandon his ship after a desperate action to hold off Syndicate ships, allowing the defenseless convoy he was escorting the time to escape.  After all this time, the Alliance has managed to find a way to attack the Syndics' capitol system directly, and is on their way there, when they find Jack Geary's survival pod and the famous Captain frozen in stasis.  They thaw the legend out just in time for him to watch the fleet get blasted to bits in an ambush at the Syndic capital.  He takes over control of the fleet by sheer dint of seniority (the Admiral commanding placed him in charge before going to his death at the negotiating table), and teaches the modern day captains about things like tactics and formations (their military traditions consist of charging headlong into the fight and hoping the esprit de corps is sufficient to win the day), and they fight their way back home.  On their way they learn much about the Syndics, including the fact that the Syndics are worried about an alien threat on their other border!

OK, so Victorious starts off with the Lost Fleet having finally made it all the way back to Alliance space.  Black Jack Geary must now contend with truculent, self-centered politicians and push for his own new strategy of striking back at the Syndic capital with their new found information.  In addition, he must now reveal the truth about the aliens, that he has hidden from his own forces through the entire long trip home.  Suffice it to say that, much as the title implies, Geary achieves victory in ways that few would have imagined possible (especially the reader).

The story, like many military SF stories, is more of a backdrop for character drama than one would think.  Sure there are great battles and well told military life scenes, but the character tensions and drama kicks this from war story to high drama.  From comradeship to cowardice, love to loss, and fleet to family, Victorious explores all of the facets of character that a wartime milieu allows, and then some.  Sure, I know that many of you are thinking "Honor Harrington all over again..." but this is really not the case.  Not only is Campbell's style very different from Weber's (no treecats, no winking knowingly, and a lot more backbiting), but Campbell handles the battle sequences in a very different manner.

THAC0: 10
Fans of military SF will love this series and this book in particular, however those not into the sub-genre may find themselves bored.  A good rule of thumb would be: if you liked JAG, then you will enjoy this.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

SF News: Film Futures

In mid-April the Commodities Future Trading Commission approved the bill that would allow the trading of film futures on the stock market.  The argument for this is that it will allow producers access to a larger pool of money to help make films.  Given the higher and higher cost of making the average film, every little bot could help, but the biggest issue here is that of the danger to investors themselves.

By and large, investors are mostly ill-educated on the dangers inherent in the futures market, which is byzantine and difficult to understand even for some professionals.  The idea of any futures market is basically the same as gambling at the race track or betting on a sporting event: you put money into what is basically a bet on whether or not the commodity is going to increase or decrease in value over a certain period of time.  With movies, these futures would likely include cost over-runs and projected box-office sales.

Why is this dangerous?  Two words: Warren Buffet.  Actually, I am being perfectly serious when I say that.  Buffet espouses a theory that you should invest in companies that you know and products that you use.  While this is great for regular stocks, it can be disastrous in a Film Futures Market.  People will invest in things based solely on their knowledge of the product will be basing their investments on their personal tastes, which will cause high investment in films that are likely to be bombs (or in many cases simply bad movies).

What can we do about this?  Aside from asking our investment professionals NOT to invest in film futures, nit very much.  When a whole bunch of people lose their shirts on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 or Iron Man 3 and demand that the government step in, though, we will need to step up and say "Caveat emptor... with extreme prejudice!"

Friday, April 30, 2010

TV & Movies: Abandon All Hope for SyFy Saturday

I have a friend, let's call her... I don't know... Marianne, you know, like on Gilligan's Island, and I think that she needs an intervention.  Why?  Well, week after week she tunes into the SyFy Channel's SyFy Saturday feature, hoping for the best, and gets disappointed.  The question really is WHY?

I know what you are thinking: Why is she disappointed?  The commercials are awful, with bad acting, effects, and direction oozing out of the screen like viscous ichor from the wounds of any number of cheesy monsters on the SyFy Original Movie list, but still she perseveres.  "One of these days the film won't suck, and with my luck it will be the day I am not watching," she laments loudly.  The problem is, I know better.

Thankfully, I have turned that negative energy to good purpose!  Having determined that there is really no way of stopping the redoubtable Marianne from watching this dreck, I have convinced her to write reviews of these cruddy schlock-fests.  These funny and popular articles will, hopefully, shame the executives at SyFy into making better movies... OK, so who is deluded now: Mongolian Death Worm is this month's movie... Yikes!

Still, I have faith that quality will improve with movies like Stonehenge Apocalypse and a few others coming down the pipe.  The gods know it cannot possibly get worse:)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gaming: The Three C's Chaosium, Cthulu, and Coherency

H.P. Lovecraft, secure in the safety of his home in Providence nearly a hundred years ago, might have shuddered in horror himself at the prospect of a future where the cyclopian architecture and creatures from beyond space and time would be part of a large game played by eager fans.  The horror of this future is paralleled only by the fact that he could have used those royalty checks, even then.

On a slightly more serious note, I would like to take a moment to talk about one of my favorite roleplayng games, Chaosium Call of Cthulu 6th edition.  Now, the people who know me, especially those in the currently running Call of Cthulu 1920's Arkham campaign so ably run by BJ Pehush, know that up until about 3 years ago I was firmly a d20 man.  Every system had to be a d20 product, with rules that I could easily remember from the Wizards of the Coast d20 System Reference Document.  Then I tried Call of Cthulu d20... and I absolutely hated it.  I came to the realization at that point that while I love d20's for Fantasy systems, modern and science fiction games really just don't translate well.  Thus when Chuck's D&D/Space 1889 combo campaign came to a close, and BJ announced an interest in running Call of Cthulu, I suggested using the Chaosium ruleset, and thankfully he agreed. 

What makes the Chaosium system different, though?  Well, for starters it is a percentile system as opposed to a flat d20 system.  Before you get your hackles up, though, I would advise you to keep an open mind.  The system uses percentages for all skills, adding in additional percentage points as you succeed in skill challenges.  In addition, only a few of the base statistics get used, and they generally correspond to a related percentile (Luck, Power, Sanity, etc). 

What does this mean for the player?  First it means a simpler way of character improvement.  With no levels, no big power ups, no increases in hit points, no feats, no talents, no skills, etc, the player is really only worried about determining which skills he succeeded in using, and marking them off to see if he can improve them at the end of the session.  Second, it means that everyone is on a fairly equal footing, having roughly equal chances of succeeding at any given skill test if there are no skill points attributed to it, and that anyone can make an attempt at any skill and possibly succeed!  Third, it means that no matter how far you progress, battles do not get longer, nor do enemies scale up by any great degree.  Even though a farmer is nowhere near as scary as a Deep One, the farmer can kill you just as easily with his shovel in the right circumstances.

Well, sure, fine, that is all well and good, but what does that mean for the Game Master?  The most important change from a d20 game to a game like Call of Cthulu is one of attitude.  Without the need for experience points and leveling up, players feel like their characters are constantly in motion and evolving so long as they participate in making skill checks.  In addition, all of the creatures are fairly well balanced, and the only differences between 'weak' and 'powerful' creatures is the tactics that the players will need to use to combat them.  Lastly, the players know the fragility of both body and mind in the game, and are less likely to complain at the horrors facing their party: A good game of Call of Cthulu usually has bodies and crazies littering the landscape and you are lucky if none of them are yours.

OK, so the mindset and ruleset of Call of Cthulu are very different from Chaosium to d20 and back again, but really, why should you bother investing in a new system?  Unlike d20, which has become an arms race of "Who got the best powerups from the most recent books" (yes, I'm looking at you D&D 3rd and 4th editions), the only person who ever needs to buy more than the main rulebook is the GM.  That's right, your shelves need not be cluttered with copious volumes of supplements unless you absolutely want them to be since they have no effect on character creation, skill use, or anything else for the players.  Most of the fantastic supplements produced by Chaosium are in the vein of gazetteers, adventures, and creature books, and the only things that the players will get out of them is a knowledge of the background in the Call of Cthulu universe.

As gaming systems go, Chaosium Call of Cthulu 6th edition is definitely a keeper, ranking highly in my esteem and showing us why reading books and looking in dark rooms is scary again!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Book Review: Roadkill by Rob Thurman

I will admit right off the bat that I have a love/hate relationship with Rob Thurman's books.  While I absolutely adore the story, characters, and writing, and I absolutely hate waiting for the next book in the series!  Yes, I am totally being serious, and no I don't think I am being unreasonable.  If Cal Leandros can be petulant about these things, then so can I.  Seriously, though, I have been very impatiently awaiting the arrival of Roadkill since I finished Deathwish, and I have to say it was well worth the wait.

For those who have been following the series from the beginning, and you know who you are, Roadkill picks up 6 months after the events chronicled in Deathwish.  Things have mostly returned to normal for Cal and Niko Leandros, and for the most part Cal is even happy (shocking gasp of indrawn breath).  Much like the Dude and the Taxi Driver in The Big Lebowski, though, Cal is about to have his happy place totally blasted out from under him.  Hired by sociopath-cum-granny witch  Abelia-Roo of the Sarzo Clan of the Rom (Romany Gypsies) from whom Niko and Cal learned the valuable lesson of asking lots of questions before one completes a bargain (see the novel Moonshine for details), the duo of monster-killers and paranormal investigators finds themselves hot on the trail of Suyolak, the Plague of the World.  Apparently, each Clan of the Rom has some sort of supernatural millstone tied around its neck, and Suyolak is the responsibility of the Sarzo (it is implied heavily that Cal is the Vayash Clan's similar responsibility).  Why?  Well, in addition to be the greatest Healer ever to walk the Earth, he is a sadistic sociopath with a desire to end all life in plague and death.  Fun guy, right?  Lay on top of this world altering crazy a series of nicely interconnected sub-plots about the nature of relationships, and Cal slowly changing as he abuses the gifts of his heritage, and you have for a great read.

Now, I have to admit that I am going to do some fan-boyish gushing right about now, so man up and get ready for it.  While I am sure that most people will argue this point, I think that while the Plague of the World conflict was important, I feel that the development of Robin & Ishiah's relationship, Rafferty & Catcher's relationship, Cal & Delilah's relationship, and Cal & Niko's relationship were of far more importance than the impending end of the world.  OK, so in order of sub-plot importance:

Cal & Delilah:  At the start of the story we discover that the Kin, Were-Mobsters of the Fuzzy Nostra, have found out about Delilah's 'bit on the side' and are not happy.  Delilah accompanies the gang on their roadtrip, but everyone seems to be of the opinion that she is just waiting for the opportunity to kill Cal to keep in the good graces of the Kin.  Cal, however, feels that people are always giving him chances and that not doing the same for Delilah would be hypocritical.  Interesting things develop all through the book.

Rafferty & Catcher: The healer who helped the gang back in Nightlife finally returns in a big way with his 'stuck in Wolf form' cousin.  We learn a lot about these two, and I think that Catcher is probably one of the best characters in the series so far.  A smart tree-hugging peacenik college student werewolf who is damaged during the process of healing and stuck in Wolf form, Catcher (named after the book his parents fell in love over) is fighting a losing battle to keep his human consciousness in his Wolf body, he still remains the most intriguing and insightful of the group.  Rafferty is trying to overcome his guilt and keep the last member of his family from going over the edge, but may push himself over first.

Robin & Ishiah: The puck is considering monogamy for the first time since Pompeii.  That's right, you heard me, MONOGAMY.  This subplot was likely meant to lighten the fairly heavy load carried by the story, but was pretty much just as dramatic as everything else.  Thankfully Rob Thurman is great at te witty turn of phrase and internal dialog or this would be a real downer of a book.  Robin is on the trip to determine if he really wants to go the monogamy route or if this thing with Ish is worth it.

Cal & Niko: The brothers Leandros do a lot of developing in this story themselves.  It has seemed over the course of the other books that the relationship here was pretty much static and set in stone, however the events of Deathwish have forced Niko to start allowing both himself and his brother to evolve their relationship into a more adult one, rather than just big smart brother and little student brother.

So with all this development go on, how do they have time to have an adventure?  Enter the subtle craft of Ms Thurman.  She weaves all these various threads together deftly into a wonderful tapestry.  The only thing that one can really complain about is that the message of the book appears to be: Anyone can become a monster with the right incentives and pressures.  Too bad this had not been read by George Lucas before he wrote the prequels so he could see the way these things are done properly!

Unless you absolutely hate modern fantasy, there is no way you can go wrong with this one.  Tight writing, great scene economy, wonderful character development, and a taut and suspenseful story make this the absolute best story of the series so far, and it will be difficult to top this masterpiece.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

SF News: Is Marvel Killing The Comics Industry?

Many times I have heard the chorus of laments from local retailers when Marvel announces a new program or concept, but never have they been as loud as they were over the last few weeks.  Why?  Well, primarily it is because your Friendly Neighborhood Comic Store Owner is getting squeezed by forces against whom he cannot hope to prevail.

For those who have no idea what I am referring to, it is the fact that Marvel, in cooperation with Diamond Distribution, has begun offering its comics in electronic format.  Cheaper, easier to store, and more easily portable than traditional comics, these new electronic comics are available on iPhones, iPads, laptops, and smartphones.  Given the ubiquitous nature of these devices, this new offering is rapidly gaining ground against actual comic book sales.

What can your Friendly Neighborhood Comic Store Owner do to make up the lost sales?  Sadly, there really isn't anything to be done for it.  Given the fact that other than the initial investment in software to convert comics into electronic format is very small, this means that over time more and more of the smaller presses will change to electronic format as well.  This means that the only physical books that will likely be available will eventuallly be Graphic Novels and compilations.  Of course, Barnes & Noble and Borders are consuming more and more of that particular market segment, so that is of little help for the small business entrepreneur.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Gaming: Warhammer 40000 Kill Teams

I have long been a fan of this obscure little derivation of the the main line Warhammer 40000 tabletop wargame.  I have run Kill Teams on and off for years, mostly using the 4th edition rules, while creating and adapting new and interesting scenarios for players and teams to work their ways through.  The sad thing is that this is all about to change.

With the release of Warhammer 40000: Battle Missions, we finally have a 5th edition version of Kill Teams.  The rules are, at best, lackluster, and they really don't have the feel of the old game at all.  Are they fun?  Yes, but for the most part, you generally tend to feel as though you are playing a very strange, abbreviated form of the main game's ruleset instead of a different, squad-based game.  Is this a bad thing?  No, it is just different.

I am sure that you are wondering why I am bringing this up, though.  Well, here is the thing: I think that the old rules were good but not great, and the new rules are interesting but not as much fun, so I am about to embark on a project to make a new Squad-Level, Kill Teams-esque, game that takes everything that I love about both systems, and makes it easier to play a game with two or more players.

Project: Warhammer 40000 Special Ops
Goal: Create a small scale squad-based game that pits one or more players against each other or mission specific obstacles.
Timeline: I hope to have a working prototype available for use by mid-late May with a Rulebook available by the SFSNNJ King of Games Day.

Why am I doing this?  Well, as I said before, I think that there are a lot of great things to be said for both the new and old Kill Teams rules, but I think that a more coherent game can be made using rules that are easier to understand and more cinematic.  Will it succeed?  Who cares!  This is mainly for my personal and professional development as a game designer, and will likely get stuck in the same file as my new Renegade Legion rules, but it keeps my knife sharp, as it were.

Do you want to help?  If so, please feel free to get in contact with me through the SFSNNJ's website (http://www.sfsnnj.com), and let me know what you would like to do.  Testers and commentators are always welcome, as are folks who wish to contribute missions and scenarios (once I have the basic framework of the system down).

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book Review: Coalescent by Stephen Baxter

This Friday, the Modern Masters group will be reading the novel Coalescent by Stephen Baxter, but I wanted to give the folks at home a brief glimpse into the inner workings of the book and get everyone warmed up for what I expect to be a very interesting discussion.

Coalescent is a book of multiple views, times, and expressions, wherein nothing is as it seems and physics and biology are walking hand in hand with the metaphysical.  Now I am sure that no few of you are wondering, what that actually means.  Well, I shall endeavor to show you in as simple a way as I can: Imagine a piece of paper and draw a dot in the center, call it Rome, then draw a series of arrows in and out, labeling them with the names of characters, now connect those lines so they loop in and out of Rome, and you have a tenuous idea of what I mean.

As for the book itself, the story starts with the death of George Poole's father in Manchester, UK, in the modern day.  George is assisted in cleaning out his father's old house by a childhood friend, Peter, who is a bit of a nutter, and in the course of their cleaning they stumble upon a picture of George and his sister standing with another girl who looks like a somewhat feminine version of George.  The discovery of his long lost twin's existence sets George off on a journey to discover the truth behind his parents' decision to send her off to a religious group called the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgina (or more simply, the Order) in Rome.  George begins his investigation in the present day, but soon finds himself looking at his family line in a whole different light, and with the help of his strange friend Peter, he makes some very startling discoveries.

Meanwhile, 1600 years prior, Regina is a young girl in the nominally Roman province of Britannia, living first with her parents, then her Grandfather along Hadrian's Wall, then the family of her former slave, then in a hardscrabble community, next with the infamous Artorius and Merlin, then, finally, in Rome where she rejoins her now aged mother and helps form the Order.  We watch as she shapes herself and her family with some very bizarre and crazy notions that make them better at survival, and then we witness the actions of the Order through the ages.

Back in the present, we see another side of things, as we follow the narrative of several characters from the Order, and learn what strange things this secretive group has really been getting p to over the past millennium and a half.  Lucia, an oddity among the sisters of the Order, has gone through puberty and is now capable if bearing children.  Her coming of age and the machinations of this clannish little enclave encapsulate the most powerful sections of a book that has already seen more than its fair share of drama, tragedy, and oddities.

Yet in the future, we find out that humanity is locked in some sort of titanic struggle in space, a struggle that is hinted at early on in the ramblings of wacky pseudo-scientist Peter McLaughlin.  We see the eventual evolution of the Order, or the Coalescents as Peter nicknames them, as well as the baseline human society.  Obviously this is a concept and subject explored at greater length in the ensuing books of the series.

THAC0: 8
Well written, with a massively diverse cast from various periods in history, Coalescent broaches some interesting concepts and pushes the envelope of Sociology.  The only real downside is that you have to have a lot of patience to wade through the incredibly slow moving beginning of the book to get to the wonderful and intriguing sections further in, much like the Hive later in the novel.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

SF News: It's an Animated World

Seems strange that more and more shows on TV are going animated.  TBS is introducing The Neighbors from Hell while FX is leading off with Archer.  SyFy has had a number of animated series (Tripping the Rift, Outer Space Astronauts) and there are rumors of a few more in the works.  Last week, Lucas announced that Clone Wars would likely run another season or two, oh and a new animated series from the demented mentalities that brought us Robot Chicken is in development.  There are rumors of even more bizarre SF related projects in the works, such as serial adaptations of Buck Rogers, John Carter of Mars, and a few others.  The question is: does animation make things any better?

Some folks have taken the position that an animation series is cheaper to produce and maintain, but that has been belied by the actual continuing costs of most animated series.  The average cost of an episode of Stargate Universe is allegedly less than the average cost of an episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but does that make one better than the other?  Well, maybe that is a bad example, given how much I despise The Clone Wars, but still, it is a valid question.  Could SF on TV be heading towards more and more animation, and is that really such a bad thing?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Week at a Glance April 19 to April 26

Happy Monday Science Fiction Fans.  This week looks to be rather a slow one in most respects, so I am going to hit the highlights for you.

In the SFSNNJ...
Wednesday 4/21 at Borders Books & Music is Films to Come with Barry Weinberger, where we will be discussing Clash of the Titans among other things.  This promises to be an interesting meeting, what with all of the recent genre releases in the movies.  On Friday 4/23 we meet again at Borders in Ramsey to discuss Stephen Baxter's novel Coalescent for Modern Masters.  This is a cool book, and I will be posting a review of it on Wednesday.

In the Movies...
This week's big 'genre' release is The Losers, based on the comic book series of the same name.  If you are interested in learning more, there is a $1 issue available for purchase at New Moon Comics that can get you into it.  I have to say that after having read this, I am far more interested in this series (which still kind of reminds me of The A-Team).  Strangely, How to Train Your Dragon is proving it has legs for the long haul as it outstripped newcomer Kick-Ass.

On Blu-Ray & DVD
If you have been hiding under a rock for the last few weeks you might not know that Avatar hits the shelves this week in a special edition Blu-Ray set.  Oh, yeah, The Lovely Bones, Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Transformers: The Movie as well as season one of Merlin the Series, Xena Warrior Princess, and Hercules the Legendary Journeys.

Friday, April 16, 2010

TV & Movies: To V or Not To V

So I got into an argument the other day over the merits of the TV series V.  My opponent, who apparently has no patience for things, complained bitterly that he wished something would, you know, actually happen on the show.  I tried to explain that the show was suffering from what is commonly referred to as Shaun Cassidy-itis, sometimes called Shaun Cassidy Disease or Syndrome.  But what does that mean?

Shaun Cassidy, who has been responsible for such amazing series as Roar, The Agency, and American Gothic, has long been known as the slowest series developer of all time.  In fact, usually the first half of the first season is all character development and setting the tone, with little or no action or movement on the overall story.  Mr. Cassidy is great at the slow reveal, and those with patience are rewarded.

While the infamous Mr. Cassidy has absolutely nothing to do with V it does appear that the staff developing the show have taken a page from his playbook.  While I am enjoying this languid approach to the coming action, we have yet to reach the Cassidy-esque tipping point where the story goes from background for character development and tension to foreground of the show.  As I stated during the argument, though, knowing the mechanics of this type of show, I suspect that the tipping point will be reached next episode.  The real question is: Is it too late to save the show?

We saw a lot of early marketing and a lot of folks tuning out due to the slow pacing and lack of any real story advancement.  By this point, V has become almost an afterthought for most viewers, assuming that they still care enough to think of it at all.  Can the show survive?  Sadly, I suspect that V and Flash Forward are destined for the dustbin.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Gaming: Rogue Trader: Lure of the Expanse

Wait, I'm not talking about AT-43 this week?  Quick, get the straight-jackets!  Seriously, though, I think that I have plowed the field pretty thoroughly in regards to AT-43, and since I do want to talk about other games I love, and only have one day a week to do so, here we are.

OK, while I have not done an actual review of Rogue Trader, it can be assumed that I like the game (after all I run a once a month RT game).  For those out there who have no idea what Rogue Trader is: RT is a Roleplaying Game set in Games Workshop's famous and popular Warhammer 40000 universe, where player characters, referred to as Explorers, play the command crew of a Trade Dynasty ship.  Part mercantile adventure, part space battle game, part standard roleplaying game, RT manages to merge all the best attributes of a variety of different concepts.

Now, what is this Lure of the Expanse book all about?  Well, frankly, Lure of the Expanse is a series of linked adventures leading up to a massive closing scenario.  If played as part of a campaign, you are looking at a minimum of 9 and a maximum of 20 sessions to get through the whole book (possibly even longer if you have short sessions or players develop byzantine side quests for cash).  This book is comparable to Fantasy Flight's Dark Heresy: Purge the Unclean campaign book in many ways, although I would have to say that Lure is a much better value for the dollar.

The Adventures: The book is divided into three sections, each dealing with one part of the overall story-arc of the race to exploit the mysterious, hidden world known as the Dread Pearl.  Interestingly, though, each section is not one stand-alone adventure, but several linked endeavor/adventures.  Here is a rough breakdown of the sections for ease of reference:

   The Eye of the Needle: This section includes the standard set-up adventure where we learn what the whole campaign is going to be about.  It starts off with the Explorers learning of the Foretelling of the Seven Witches, and their need to earn their way into the conclave so they can learn what lucrative secret the Witches will be revealing.  The next adventure in Eye of the Needle is a race to get to the first leg of the journey first and includes sections of space battle and possibly mutiny, depending on prevailing conditions on the Explorers' ship.  On arrival at the Quppa-Psi, the Explorers must battle rivals, hostile fauna, and duplicitous Eldar to secure their prize and the right to move forward in their quest.  Ideally, Eye of the Needle will take anywhere from 2-4 sessions to complete.

   The Heathen Trail: Here is where things become a bit strained.  The second arc of the story is basically a series of scavenger hunt adventures where the Explorers are looking for more clues as to the final location of Warp-shrouded Dread Pearl.  The Heathen Trail contains adventures on five different planets, with five different sets of goals, and the ability of the Explorers to pick and choose what order they want to do the adventures in.  Each section of this arc is pretty well self contained, and while it works great as part of a larger campaign, like Lure of the Expanse, they can also be easily adapted to run as simple scenarios in your own home campaign.  The end result, assuming that you are running the campaign as a coherent whole, should be the Explorers getting access to the final resting place of the Dread Pearl.  If the guide is to be believed, each planetary adventure should take one full session, however if your players actually do any roleplaying, aside from just bulling their way through encounters, you can probably double that, so figure a 5-10 day turn-around to complete this stretch.

   The World Beyond: Almost anti-climactic in its closing of the story, the third arc gets the Explorers to the Dread Pearl, a Maidenworld of the ancient Eldar Empire, only to find that there are others there as well.  While the adventures and closing are interesting, I happen to feel that this is the weakest section of the book, as most of the adventures are simply things that were done earlier, done again with different NPCs.  Unless your characters feel the need to make life more difficult than it absolutely needs to be, this should be a 2-3 session arc, however adding in a space battle (or three) and spending all their time fighting off all comers could push this back to 5 sessions easily.

Information: Apart from the adventures themselves, the most important thing in the book, from my perspective, is the information contained in it.  The planetary Gazetteers for Footfall, Zayth, Dross, Vaporius, The Wreck of the Light of Terra, the Processional of the Damned, and (of course) Dread Pearl are all excellent and very useful even if you are not pursing the campaign outlined in the book.  A savvy GM can use a lot of the information in the Gazetteers to form endeavors that will be fun and flavorful for their Explorers.  The informational content doesn't end there, though, as there are a huge number of NPCs, creatures, aliens, and starships that will help make other games far more interesting.  Even if you ignore the adventures, these parts and parcels make the book a must have for an GM.

Support: Like all Fantasy Flight Games releases, the publishers have a great network of support for their products.  Their website contains hand-outs, downloads, and other goodies that make running the adventures a breeze.  In addition, you can use the free adventures Forsaken Bounty and Into the Maw with Lure of the Expanse to further enrich Explorers time in the Kronus Expanse.

THAC0: 5
Whether you are a Warhammer Fluff Kingpin who just wants to own the book so he can learn more about the setting, a Rogue Trader GM, or simply an RPG enthusiast, Lure of the Expanse is a must have title for you.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book Review: Flash Gordon: Secret History of Mongo

For a change, I am going to review a graphic novel as opposed to a regular book this week.  Why?  Well, number one is that fact that tonight is Drawing a Crowd with my friend and moderator Tim Cook at New Moon Comics in Little Falls, and number two is the fact that I bloody well feel like it.

For those of us who grew up in the 1980's, most remember the movie Flash Gordon with Brian Blessed, Max von Sydow, Topol, and Timothy Dalton making a memorably fun film in spite of the slab of beef they had playing Flash.  Flash Gordon, the character, has a long history stretching back to the days of the pulps and the serial movies, to weekly comic strips and eventually comic books (which were mostly just compilations of the weekly strips).  After a long hiatus, though, Flash Gordon is back... or was back... or maybe will be back again when the rights get straightened out again.

OK, so now that I have confused the issue completely, let me clarify: Arden Entertainment recently put out a series of Flash Gordon comics, rebooting the franchise and kicking it up a notch (or three) while returning it to its comic strip roots.  Sadly, Arden is not doing well financially and there are no plans as to what will be happening to Flash.  As a last desperate gasp, Arden put out Flash Gordon: Secret History of Mongo which ties up a lot of loose ends, but still leaves things open to continue the story.  Also, it allows us a glimpse of what had happened before Flash, Dale, and Zarkov arrived on the mysterious planet.

Secret History of Mongo takes place as a series of vignettes, showing the activities of most of the principal players in the Flash Gordon story during Ming's rise to power and his consolidation of the warring nations of Mongo under his despotic rule.  We get to watch Ming as a child, we see Prince Barin in the slave pits, Prince Thun's loyal retainer Turg matching wits with Hawkmen, Prince Voltan being put into the slave collar in forced service to Ming to spare his daughter, and even that crazy Queen Fria of Frigia dealing with an alien who wants only to make her lands a better place.  All these stories are told using the framing device of Flash having found a high tech gizmo that has stored recordings of these events.  Oh, yeah, and it introduces another set of villains to the story with the Witch Queen Azura and her underground kingdom.

THAC0: 8
All in all, is Secret History of Mongo worthy of your attention?  Well, if you like Flash Gordon, then yes.  If you like stylish art, yes.  If you like high adventure, yes.  If you don't like comics, no.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

SF News: The Next Big Thing

For the past few years the bookshelves have been loaded with paranormal detective stories, which I like to refer to as Paranoir, but is the tide of literature changing again?  Sure, we all still love Sookie Stackhouse, Harry Dresden, John Taylor, and the rest of the supernatural PIs, but has their dominance finally reached the tipping point?  If it has, what would the next big thing be?

This was a question I posed recently to a few friends and we were not really sure.  Given the direction of the movies, obviously aliens are back in vogue (Avatar) as are robots (WALL-e) and spaceships (Star Trek), but does that mean a return to the classical direction of Science Fiction?  Will we start seeing more books with the classical tropes wending their way into the mix?  The answer, surprisingly, is yes!

Look at the shelves in your local friendly bookstore, and you will see more books in the Science Fiction section dealing with hard science fiction, and fewer with guys and gals in trench coats with magic wands and staves of power.  Oh, don't worry, this change is certainly not going to displace the current big kids in Paranoir overnight, and for all we know it might only be a transitory resurgence of hard SF, but who knows?  Maybe a new dawn for Space Opera is around the corner (assuming somebody starts burying Star Wars in the backyard).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Week at a Glance: April 12 to April 19

Well it is another new week here in the great land of Science Fiction, and this one will be kicking off a bunch of really neat stuff, so let's roll up our sleeves and get started.

In the SFSNNJ...
This week sees us looking at our recent guest, Jeff Somers, The Electric Church at 8pm tonight at the Borders Books and Music in Ramsey.  We had a great time with Jeff on Saturday, and I am really looking forward to sharing the information from Saturday with the group on Monday.  You can see more about Jeff Somers' appearance on the SFSNNJ's official website at http://www.sfsnnj.com/SpecialEvents/Guests/20100410_Jeff_Somers.html.  On Wednesday, we return to New Moon Comics at 8pm for Drawing a Crowd where we will be discussing Religion, Gods, and Comics.  As an avid reader of comics like Supergod and The Wormwood Chronicles I am pretty psyched to see what our master moderator, Tim Cook, has up his sleeve.

In the Movies...
Clash of the Titans slipped to the number 2 slot in the box office, falling to the depredations of the comedy juggernaut Date Night, but I suspect that Date Night's reign at the top of the charts will be equally short-lived.  That's right, this week sees the film adaptation of the quirky and fun Comic book Kick-Ass hit the theatres like a ton of bricks... or like a wannabe superhero with a can do attitude and no super powers.  I have to say that as much as I was looking forward to Clash of the Titans, I am really kind of interested in seeing Kisk-Ass.  The commercials and trailers have done a great job of highlighting the concept without giving away any of the actual story, which is a bone of contention for me with most trailers, so I am firmly hoping to be entertained.  Also, for those of you who may not have seen it yet, I have it on very good authority from Thom Purdy that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is well worth seeing on the big screen.

On Blu-Ray and DVD...
Amazingly, this is a huge week for DVDs, with a number of unexpected titles bulling their way onto the shelves and begging for you take them home like cute little puppies (or kittens if that is your think).  From Woody Harrelson's edgy superhero film Defendor (which is a great complement to this week's Kick-Ass release) to Three Kingdom: Resurrection of the Dragon, we have only a few real 'new releases in the genre, however there are a plethora of more important Special Releases of older titles making their way out this week.  Apollo 13 hits Blu-Ray with drama in space as Tom Hanks captains the ill-fated lunar expedition, and Disney releases a special edition of The Great Mouse Detective from the restricted confines of its deep dark vault, while anime fans will drool over the Viridian Collection Box Set of When They Cry.  TV on DVD sees shows like Haunted and Ice Twisters vying for your attention, especially since most of us ignored them on TV (although it is hard to blame folks on Ice Twisters as it is yet another tedious and awful SyFy pic).

In Video Games...
Bust out your wallets, folks, because this looks to be an expensive week for all of us!  Coming to stores everywhere are a variety of new releases from the infamous Grand Theft Auto series (Episodes From Liberty City) to Sam & Max The Devil's Playground, which will be stealing their way into a variety of platforms.  On XBox360 we have both Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction and Final Fight: Double Impact, while on PC you can get your truck driving jones on in Rig & Roll or pretend that you are Commando Cody with Dark Void.

In Board, Roleplaying, and Tabletop War Games...
Fantasy Flight Games is set to release The Horus Heresy this week.  The board game takes place in the Warhammer 40K universe, but in the elder days when the Warmaster Horus and 9 Legions of Space Marines turned from the face of the Emperor and slid into Chaos!  This looks to be a major release, and a feather in FFG's already plumage-filled cap.

In Books...
OK, so apparently I lied last week, David Weber's new Safehold book is coming out this week and Charlaine Harris' Dead in the Family is not coming out until May!  Amazon lied!  Apparently by release dates, they meant dates for pre-order (lies and calumny) so I apologize to all of you for the error and will begin hunting down those responsible for this outrageous issue.  Until I can get a better look at what is coming up, I will be holding off on upcoming book releases for now...

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Gaming: AT-43 A New Option Part 4

Week four of my in-depth look at AT-43 is here, and this week we are taking a look at unit types.

Unit Types

Units in AT-43 are divided into two categories: Infantry and Armored Fighting Vehicles, or AFVs.

The backbone of most armies, infantry is made up of ground-pounders and jump infantry, as well as armored fighting suits.

Type I Infantry (Basic Units): Much like troops options in AT-43, Type I infantry is the basic building block of any army.  Most force organizations require one or two of these unit types, which are not anywhere near as good as their Type 2 & Type 3 cousins.  The good news, though, is that Type I Infantry fills more of a support role, than the equivalent units in 40K would (i.e. Troops choices).  Most Type I Infantry units have options to get Mechanics or Heroes that can influence other units in the field, both friend and foe.

Type II Infantry (Elite Units): Like Elite selections in 40K, Type II Infantry fills a more specialized role than Type I infantry.  Better accuracy and weapons make Type II Infantry a better choice for the points, and depending on the force type, will likely make up the bulk of your forces.  In addition, most Type II Infantry units carry mission specialists that can really put some stress on your enemies, and there are even a few armies that have great Type II unit Heroes.

Type III Infantry (Power Suits): These units are the AT-43 version of Space Marine Terminators, and much like Termies, they are brutal at range and in assault, and extremely difficult to hurt.  Most armies have Type III Infantry in Power Suits (UNA TacArms, Red Blok Colossus, Cog Cyborgs, and Kharman Anacongas), and each type of suit provides a different advantage.  In addition to their specific advantage, each power suit has two weapons that can always split fire (i.e. all left arms shoot at one target and all right arms at another).  No army is really complete without at least one of these expensive units, and many armies require 2 or more to be truly terrifying.

Armored Fighting Vehicles
Walkers, Hoverbikes, and Tanks make up the ranks of the AFV units, and are divided up according to size.  All AFVs have structure points, set in three locations (Propulsion, Frame, Weapons).  Unlike 40K, where one lucky hit can destroy a tank, even small Type I AFVs require more than two frame hits to kill.  To make matters even worse, hits are randomized on a table, though fortunately all overflow hits default to Frame.  Another nifty thing about the AFV is that it can run down enemies (not tank shock, actually running over) with a rush move, and can effect multiple enemy squads!

Type I AFV (Recon Units): Smaller, faster, and lightly armed, the type I AFV is AT-43's ubiquitous Sentinel Scout Walker.  For the points, Type I's are the best buy available, and tend to make or break the army depending on their loadouts.  Type I AFVs are often deployed in Squadrons of 1-3 led by a sergeant.  Like power suits, they can split up their right and left weapons fire (if they have two weapons).

Type II AFV (Combat Units): Robust and really tough, the Type II AFV makes most opponents tremble.  Frankly, the best way to take one of these big boys out is with another AFV, or a really dedicated anti-tank unit.  Heavier armor and more structure points are a pretty good trade-off for reduced speed, but for the most part, Type II's are not that much slower than Type I's.  The big issue with Type II's: They are singletons, which means that Heroes cannot hide out in the unit, letting other models take the hits.  Luckily, most Type II AFV Heroic units have the mechanic ability.

Type III AFV (Heavy Units): As impressive as a Land Raider or Leman Russ can be, nothing compares to the awe-inspiring spectacle of a Type III AFV.  These units are well nigh impossible to take down, with incredibly heavy armor and a whole lot of structure points, and have the biggest, nastiest guns in the game.  Want to take out a Fire Toad with one volley?  Bring a Type III AFV!  Thankfully there are no heroic Type III AFVs (yet), but at 500-700 points per model, the fact that they can eat any opponents for breakfast more than makes up for it.