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 (, 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  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.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Book Review: The Electric Church by Jeff Somers

This Saturday we will be joined by writer Jeff Somers at our monthly Face the Fiction event at the Borders Books & Music in the Ramsey Interstate Shopping Center at 8p.  Unlike many of our Face the Fiction events, I have recently had the chance to read Mr. Somers' fantastic new book The Electric Church and am looking forward to reading the sequel, The Digital Plague in the near future.  What is really amusing, though, is that due to a quirk of scheduling both Suspense Central and the Beam Me Up Book Group of Watchung are going to be discussing this one at their events.  To say that I am looking forward to all three is an understatement.  Enough about the groups, though, let's talk about the book.

When I first started reading this journeyman effort by Mr. Somers, I was struck by how easy it was to get into.  Unlike many books of violent cyberpunk SF, The Electric Church contains no massive info-dumping, no 'How did we get into this mess' dialog, and no 'if only /X actual event/ had never happened' monologues to explain to us how the world came to its current woeful straits.  Reference is made to the good old days of pre-Unification, but mostly the characters are too busy living their hardscrabble lives to worry over might-have-beens or historical interests.  About the only real data that we have is that 95% of the people of the Earth live a bare bones subsistence life with 5% taking what's left of the jobs and enforcing the Laws of the Joint Council.

The story itself is very reminiscent of several recent British works, most notably Ken MacLeod's Star Fraction and Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovaks series, with violence and gritty action around every corner.  An interesting meme that crops up here is a very Darwinian cyberpunk society where augmented humans are looked at as petty failures who will likely be dead from their own attempts to better themselves.  This is generally the antithesis of most augment features, where augmented people are the cream of the crop.  Additionally, going against the grain, the story does not demonize Science, or even the applications of technology that are downright vile (i.e. the Monks), but rather cites that it is not the concept that is grotesque but how it is applied and for what reasons.

Of course, I suppose that I must talk about the book itself at some point.  Avery Cates is a Gunner, a hired killer whose only goal in life is to retire wealthy at the ripe old age of 27 (in most scenes he is the oldest character there).  Unfortunately, Mr. Cates is having a bad month: accidentally killing a System Security Officer (detective), witnessing another System Officer get killed by a Monk, putting a psycho System Officer in the line of fire of several other Monks, etc.  As in all things, Avery Cate's luck is about to change... sadly it is a change for the worse, as he is hired to take out the most powerful religious leader in the Unified world: the head of the Electric Church.  Hiring a team of crack miscreants, Avery Cates sets about executing a plan of such fiendish complexity it cannot help but succeed, after all it is so clever you could cut yourself on the edges.  Sound like fun?  Well, toss in psychotic cyborgs, a mysterious employer, factions of the System Security Force that want to either help or murder him, psychics with a bad case of Les Miserables, and a team so far south of trustworthy that they cannot even get it stamped on their travel visas, and you begin to get the picture.

Fast paced, action packed, thoughtful, groundbreaking, and fun, The Electric Church is a romp through a degenerate and horrible future in which you really cannot help but agree with Parker from Leverage: "Some times bad guys are the only good guys you get."

THAC0: 5
If you are a fan of Cyberpunk in all its manifold glory, then this is a must read for you.  Fans of the standard thriller will be highly entertained, and the techno-jargon and SF-isms are kept to a minimum so pure mystery readers will not be lost in the shuffle.  If Day of the Jackal and Strange Days had a baby it would be The Electric Church.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

SF News: Everything Old is New Again

With the recent additions of films like Clash of the Titans and A Nightmare on Elm Street to the ranks of the great big Hollywood remake list, and even more on the way, we have to wonder is there any good reason not to remake a genre film?  Some would argue that the originals were masterpieces, except for the ones that were famously awful, and should never be redone in any way, shape, or form.  Others would posit that while these films were great for their times, nobody under the age of 30 has seen them, nor are they likely to do so since they have no connection to the works at all.  So let's look at the pros and cons of remake mania.

Actors: In the modern film, Actors have mostly given way to Stars.  What is the difference?  Well Actors are professionals who care more about their craft and performance than they do about glitz and glamor, whereas Stars are serviceable enough at their craft, but are mostly attached to projects to increase box office appeal.  While older films have more Actors in them, many of them are poorly utilized, and while Stars may not be as good as Actors, this deficit can be overcome with better writing, direction, and effects.

Directors: The art of cinematic directing has changed radically over the past few years, and not just because of changes in technology.  Sure tech has influenced and driven some of that change, but primarily the director's vision has been influenced by changes in perception, style, and artistic conceptualization.  Even the old hands have changed their processes and style over time.  Compare Close Encounters of the Third Kind to War of the Worlds and you will see what I mean.  Action aside, War of the Worlds contains few, if any, of the elements that one normally associates with Spielberg films (although the ubiquitous Spielberg Stare is still there).  Updating an older film can make huge changes in the look and feel, creating a new version that is more accessible to modern audiences.

Visual Effects: Do I really need to explain why updating visual effects with a new treatment of an old film is necessary?  Seriously?  Much as I loved the old The Day the Earth Stood Still, its look and effects are wickedly outdated.  Is the new film better because of better effects?  No, mainly because it falls apart in Acting and Direction.  Would an updated version of Forbidden Planet be a good thing?  Probably.  Would an updated Star Wars?  If George Lucas is involved, probably not.

Writing: Remember when screenwriters actually wrote dialog and storywriters wrote story?  Me neither.  A friend of mine was arguing that this is common practice, and has been for a while.  While I cannot dispute that having no knowledge of the practice, it might explain the disconnect in many films between what is happening and what is being said.  There are quite a few good, capable, professional writers out there, and attaching them to a remake of a beloved classic tends to make us all feel better.  Still, it could be argued that if you are doing a remake, why not just use the original script with a few updates (Yes, I am looking at you Tim Burton.  Planet of the Apes indeed).

So in the end, as we look at these four major factors in the 'old vs new' debate, we are left with just as many questions as we had before.  There is room for both old and new versions of any film, however it could be argued that unless you are improving on the original you should leave well enough alone.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Week at a Glance: April 5 to April 11

Greetings Science Fiction fans,

Now that the water, power, and cable have stabilized, the rugs are drying on the lawn, and the nephews are back under some semblance of control, we can get back into the important job of running the Blog!  Hoorah!  Seriously, though, last week was pretty monstrous, but thankfully, we survived, and the holiday went off without a hitch.  Now, on to looking at the week ahead...

In the SFSNNJ...
Tuesday Chris Hasselkus leads That's Science Fiction! at the Hillsdale library for a viewing of Hayao Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service from 7p to 9p, with a post event meal to be determined after the meeting.  On Saturday April 10th, Face the Fiction welcome author Jeff Somers for what promises to be a very memorable night.  Having recently read The Electric Church, I have to say that I am looking forward to Mr. Somers' presentation with baited breath.  Look for a review of The Electric Church on Wednesday during our normal Book Review date.

In the Movies...
Clash of the Titans exploded onto the screen last week, rising to the top of the box office in the midst of lackluster reviews, while the highly acclaimed How to Train Your Dragon slipped down to third, narrowly edged out by Why Did I Get Married Too.  There are really no genre films coming out this week, but keep your eyes peeled for more on Kick Ass, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Losers in the upcoming weeks.

On DVD & Blu-Ray...
The Academy Award winning film series The Lord of the Rings smashes its way into the realm of Blu-Ray this week, treating audiences to amazing vistas and epic battles in even clearer picture and sound.  Yup, now you can count all the warts on the Orcs and see the individual hairs on Frodo's feet!  Two classics also make their way to Blu-Ray this week: A Nightmare on Elm Street and Cocoon.  This is interesting as the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street is due out at the end of this month.  The Studio obviously is not afraid of comparisons if they are releasing this classic in Blu-Ray with more than enough time for folks to buy and watch the classic and contrast the performances, scripts, etc.  Time will tell if this is a good move on the part of New Line Cinemas.

On TV...
V and Flash Forward continue to shine in spite of lagging audience numbers this week, but the big news is the return of Fringe to FOX.  Amazingly, in spite of the fact that it is basically a reset of Strange World, Fringe is a good catch for FOX, finally filling the hole that has been missing since X-Files departed to fight the future (as well as fighting fan expectations).  Stargate Universe and Merlin find Friday nights a godsend with little competition to draw away their respective audiences, and may start to show more chops in the ratings.

In Video Games...
It is kind of a slow week for Video Game releases, with little in the way of new games emerging until next week's high powered hitters whack us upside the head.  Look for the Borderlands Add on Pack and Lead & Gold: Tales of the Old West titles on the shelves, for now, but hoard your dollars, because next week sees a glut of Grand Theft Auto titles, as well as cornucopia of other games.

In Books...
This is an exciting week for books, as major new releases in several NY Times Bestselling series set publishers up for major paydays.  Jim Butcher's next Harry Dresden novel, Changes, David Weber's newest Safehold book, A Mighty Fortress, former SFSNNJ Guest Charlaine Harris brings us a new Sookie Stackhouse story in Dead in the Family will be greedily sucking up our dollars at local bookstores.  In addition to all of these great titles, look for new Star Wars books, a glut of horror and paranormal romance titles, and more!

Friday, April 2, 2010


Things have been worse with the Internet than expected, and work is piling up.  I will resume proper posting Monday with next week's Week At A Glance.  I may also start trying to get ahead with my posts...  just in case it rains again...