Hopeful Science Fiction Versus Hopeless Science Fiction, Part Two

I received a lot of feedback on my Hopeful Science Fiction Versus Hopeless Science Fiction post.  The lion’s share, however, consisted of people pointing out how hopeless things are.

Sigh.

So to follow up, I thought I’d explore the genesis of this mindset.  Despite the mounting evidence that, despite travails, we are easily in the best time to be alive, all remains doom and gloom.  We can’t possibly survive.  We’ll choke ourselves in pollution, fry like eggs in global warming doom, slaughter one another in war, or all fall to starvation and disease.

Crap.  Seriously, that’s crap.

Could it happen?  Sure.  Lots of things could happen.  However, few people seem to be basing these outcomes on science or present trends.  They’re told constantly in journalism and entertainment media that The End is Nigh!  Every news outlet will give you the worst case scenario of . . . well, everything.  They’ll tell you that all the experts agree that doomsday is just a stone’s throw away.

And for the journalism industry, I know why.  Danger and doom sells.  Few people read the headline saying: Everything’s Okay.  You don’t tune into the local news and expect to see a story about how nobody got shot and nobody got roasted in a house fire.  Put up a sexy blurb about a campus rape, though, and watch the numbers go up.

It’s the nature of the journalism beast.  I don’t like it, but I do understand it.

But the entertainment industry?  Why?  Why is there so much doom and gloom?  Positive and uplifting science fiction typically outsells the hand-wringing doom.  Not always, of course, but dystopian worlds have their own appeal.  But as a rule, the science fiction with hope and heroes gets better mileage than hopelessness and anti-heroes.

Hell, even in bleak settings, you can still have hope.  You can aspire to something better.  Bleak settings make hope and heroes shine all the brighter.

Nine of the top ten highest-grossing science fiction movies are essentially positive (Avatar being the hold-out).  It’s dominated by Star Wars, and even though the science is goofy and some of the movies execrable, the message is essentially positive.  The heroes can win.  Evil can be overcome.  Even in Independence Day (which I actually loathe) the message is that humanity can overcome tremendous obstacles.  Back to the Future is an amazingly positive trilogy of movies, especially the ending.

Because here’s the secret: people like positive messages–even goofy, horribly-scripted ones (I’m looking at you, Independence Day).  They want to look towards the future with hope, not doom.

Maybe the problem is that people see it as naive, and not realistic.  To have hope for the future is quaint and old-fashioned–even if the trend is towards a better world.

Breakthroughs in genetic engineering through CRISPR technology, emerging nanotechnology, increasingly capable AIs, GMO foods, better air and water and decreasing violence are all the trends.  We are on the cusp of an amazing new world–and a lot sooner than you expect, thanks to exponential trends.

And yet . . .

And yet so many people see nothing but destruction and death in our future.  Nothing but the same in our science fiction books and movies.  Do they genuinely believe this, or does it seem foolish to say anything else?  Do they seek depth in gloom, like an Emo-obsessed teenager?

I don’t know.  I only know that despite the pall of inevitable chaos rising from mass media, the future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades.

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Hopeful Science Fiction Versus Hopeless Science Fiction

I have noted a disturbing trend in science fiction recently.

By ‘recently’ I mean ‘the last few decades’.  Science fiction and science fiction fandom apparently has a civil war going on.  On the one hand, you have the old school hopeful science fiction.  The kind of SF that has troubling futures, but balanced by the heroes and mankind getting smarter and more capable to meet the challenge.  It still poses troubling questions, but offers up possible solutions.

Then there’s the other side.  The side in which the planet is doomed, mankind will fall and our own foibles doom us all.  Or in which humanity is the stupid, brutish and warlike idiots, saved by the kind, benevolent and wise aliens.  Woe!  We are so stupid!

I’ve seen it in all media–movies, television, books and comic books.  The trend of seeing the future as an unending bleakness isn’t new, but didn’t become a major force until the sixties and seventies.  I think at some point it became ‘trendy’ to be pessimistic in SF.  Writers are always seeking the next ‘doomsday’ to be worried about.  If it isn’t nuclear war, it’s overpopulation, ozone depletion, acid rain, global warming, etc., etc. 

I get it.  The future is uncertain and dangerous.  They miss the point, however–the future has always been uncertain and dangerous!  You think Cro-Magnons didn’t fear what the next year would bring?  You think the ancient mariners traveling across the Atlantic to find the New World weren’t fantasizing the worst?  Science fiction at its best is either a cautionary tale to avoid future pitfalls or an inspiration to illuminate the way for the next generation.  Sure, there’s nothing wrong with dystopian futures, especially when dipping into horror, but as a change of pace–not a staple.

It seems to me this disconnect is especially wide when we consider the magnitude of technological achievements and development around us.  The free market and technology has lifted over two billion people out of poverty in the last four decades.  The percentage of people living in abject poverty has dropped below 10% for the first time in history.  (The percentage of people in abject poverty in 1800?  94%!)  Violence keeps dropping, life expectancy keeps increasing, quality of life keeps improving.  And on and on.  Yet all we hear in the news is Doom! Doom! Doom!

Maybe that’s it.  The 24-hour news cycle offers us a constant barrage of everything that’s wrong.  Many writers feel wrong by not reflecting this cavalcade of misery into their writing.  Like it’s a cheat to do otherwise.  Like they’re not “keepin’ it real” or something–even if it flies in the face of reality.

This schism seems to have a political component to it as well.  The hopefuls tend to be more conservative or libertarian.  The hopeless are progressives.  What this says about the two philosophies I’ll leave to others to interpret.  However, we have recently seen the SF Cold War get hot with the advent of the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies with the Hugo Awards.  I won’t say that conflict is completely about the hopeful/hopeless conflict, because it’s not.  That’s an element of it, though.

I don’t mind cautionary tales.  Hell, War of the Worlds is a cautionary tale about British colonialism.  It’s a time-honored trope.  What bothers me is that it’s now the default setting, despite positive progress on a staggering scale.  Where is the new hopeful science fiction?  Where is the next Star Trek?  The next Asimov?  Have we become so negative we find those very ideas quaint?

I haven’t.  I still think science fiction is at its best when it shines brightest.

Infra-Man: Glorious Cheese

Infra-Man hit American screens in 1976.  Known in China as either “The Super Inframan” or “Chinese Superman”.  My first viewing was as a little moppet of seven years old.  Even in a seven-year-old’s eyes, it’s a weird movie.  It’s a Chinese superhero movie with insane visuals, monsters and a lot of Kung Fu.

The Shaw Brothers cobbled this strange gem together, along with some Japanese help.  In appearance, the Infra-Man character looks a lot like Kamen Rider, which is probably intentional.  In fact, all elements of Infra-Man have a “borrowed” or imitative feel.  This doesn’t detract from the cheese vibe of the film, and in fact, enhances it.  It looks like a Japanese production, fights like a Hong Kong film, and has elements from American television.  The Six Million Dollar man was popular at the time and they shoehorned the “bionic” elements as much as possible.

As the movie begins, a Disco-Dominatrix-looking chick named Queen Dragon Mom (Terry Lau) appears from beneath the Earth with an army of monsters.  She blows up a bunch of Chinese cities to demonstrate her powers.  Dragon Mom plans on conquering the Earth (naturally).  The only thing standing in her way is a group of heroic agents wearing shiny jumpsuits.  And motorcycle helmets.  

Don’t overthink it.

Anyway, this group of intrepid agents is outmatched by Dragon Mom’s forces.  So their intrepid head scientist, Professor Liu Ying-de (Wang Hsieh) asks for a volunteer to become Infra-Man.  He apparently had plans for this project, but needed someone to go through the torturous process.  Our hero, Lei Ma (Danny Lee) volunteers to become the bug-eyed Infra-Man, no matter the cost.

The professor crafts Infra-Man with consummate care, which consists of sticking parts from Radio Shack on him.  Combined with blinking lights.  Unfortunately, while the professor works, one of the monsters attacks.  It’s called (I think) “Plant Monster” and looks like a combination of Cthulhu and one of the animated trees from “HR Pufnstuf”.  It plants itself and grows into a giant plant/tree/something and starts smashing up “Science Headquarters”.  The power is cut during the attack and Lei nearly dies on the table.  Intrepid agents restore the power, and Infra-Man is born!  He leaps to the attack and quickly prunes back the arboreal menace.  (Yes, I went there.)

Speaking of the monsters, these are some drug-trippy things.  Besides the Plant Monster, there are: The Spider Monster, which looks like a fat, humanoid spider and can grow to Kaiju size.  The Mutant Drill which is . . . umm, a green scaly guy with a drill for a hand.)  Long Hair Monster (which is like a troll doll without a face,) and lots of others.  There are also the obligatory faceless flunkies of the Skeleton Ghosts.  The Skeleton Ghosts wear black jumpsuits and motorcycle helmets painted up as skeletons.  Yes, I’m serious.

The movie is a series of excuses to have superhero Kung Fu fights and the plot, such as it is, is mostly superfluous.  It culminates in a giant brawl in the volcano headquarters of Queen Dragon Mom, with enough action for a sugar-dose ADHD child.

Infra-Man is gloriously fucking bizarre and cheesy.  It’s not all fun, as the movie drags in places, but when it’s fun, it’s pretty damn fun.  Go ingest your drug of choice and watch it.  Now.

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Godzilla in Marvel Comics (1977-1979)

In my youth, Marvel Comics shoehorned Godzilla, King of the Monsters into the Marvel Universe.  I’m not kidding.  Godzilla was, for a brief time, a character in the Marvel Universe.  Written by Doug Moench and penciled by Herb Trimpe, the comic lasted two years.  Two years of awesome.

How the hell did this happen, you might ask.  Apparently someone at Marvel noticed the popularity of the Showa Era Godzilla movies.  This same someone convinced Marvel to buy the U.S. rights for Godzilla.  Somewhere along the line, the same entities incorporated Godzilla into the Marvel Universe.  I can only assume these entities were taking controlled substances.

Godzilla fought SHIELD, The Fantastic Four, Avengers and The Champions (now defunct,) while rampaging across America.  If that sounds bizarre and cool at the same time, the Big G also duked it out with Devil Dinosaur in an alternate prehistoric past.  (Having Jack Kirby pencil those comics is the only way to make that cooler.)

Don’t think that Godzilla contained only Marvel character cameos.  The comics crafted a few unique characters and monsters which manage to survive in the Marvel Universe to this day.  Doctor Demonicus (you have to love that name) and Red Ronin.  Demonicus is a loony scientist who specializes in mutating creatures and making giant monsters (who could have guessed?)  Red Ronin is a giant samurai robot built to fight Godzilla.  Red Ronin has since shown up in a couple of comics, including one in which the Avengers had to take it down before it started a nuclear war.

If all of this sounds like some kind of fanboy fiction mash-up, well, it kinda is.  I assume Marvel wanted to cash in on Godzilla popularity while incorporating their own characters.  In a bizarre, 70s way, it actually works.  70s Marvel comics got very weird and this isn’t even close to the strangest comics of that decade.

Technically, Godzilla is still part of the Marvel Universe, but they lost the rights to the character and had him ‘mutated’ by Demonicus.  I think the unofficial name now is “Don’tSueUsTohoasaurus” or something.  They changed him enough to avoid legal action but still milk a few old fanboy bucks.

This series is cheesy.  It’s crazy.  I still love it.  Amidst the strangeness are a few scenes that rise above the common cheese.  There’s the Devil Dinosaur versus Godzilla fight, of course.  However, the scene Trimpe did with Hercules (yes, that Hercules) and Godzilla sticks with me to this day.  Angel (of the X-Men, although with the Champions at the time) is unconscious and Godzilla is about to step on him.  Hercules runs beneath G’s foot, lifts, and throws Godzilla on his back!  As a kid, that one scene alone probably sped up puberty by a few months.

There are also the conventions one expects from Godzilla.  He fights other monsters, aliens, alien monsters and a giant Sasquatch.  Yes, a giant Sasquatch.  Suck that, D.C.!  There are also the issues where Godzilla is shrunk by Pym Particles down to the size of a rat and runs around in the New York sewers.  Told you it’s weird.

Marvel has a collected edition of all 24 issues.  Go check them out.  Preferably after taking controlled substances.

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Battleship: A Good B Movie

Battleship came out in 2012 and I ignored it.  I thought: “This is a movie based on a friggin’ board game.  No thank you.”  I didn’t get a chance to watch it until 2014.  Surprise!  It’s pretty good.

Don’t misunderstand me, it’s a B movie.  There is no danger of an Academy Award in Battleship’s future.  Taken for all that, it’s genuinely entertaining and not nearly as mind-numbing as Michael Bay’s tripe.  The fact that the writers and director are able to make a decent movie out of the board game Battleship ought to be an award unto itself.  More than that, they somehow shoehorned elements of the board game into the plot without making it seem completely ludicrous.  If someone never played the game and knew nothing of it, they would probably never realize it within the movie.

The gist of the plot is that mankind sends a signal to a nearby star system where an Earth-like planet is discovered.  The aliens respond with an invasion (naturally.)  Five ships are ‘warping’ (or whatever FTL hand wave you want to use) towards Earth when their communications ship collides with a satellite.  That ship crashes into Hong Kong while the other four land in the Pacific.  Three destroyers on a joint training mission investigate the ships.

Onboard the destroyers are two main characters–Lt. Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) and Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano).  Alex is every cliche of the ‘wild maverick’.  He only joined the Navy because his brother, Stone (Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd) got him a deal to stay out of jail.  The offending incident occurred when Alex tried a stupid stunt to impress Sam Shane (Brooklyn Decker) and destroyed a convenience store.  Sam is the daughter of U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Terrance Shane (Liam Neeson).  Liam,  by the way, is completely wasted in this movie.  He phoned in this role and kept checking to make sure his check cleared.

A force field is projected from the mothership, keeping out the rest of the Pacific Fleet.  The destroyers engage the alien ships and two of them are destroyed.  Stone is killed and Alex fulfills the Young Action Hero stereotype by acting stupidly.  Despite that, the lone destroyer escapes annihilation and plays a cat and mouse game with the aliens after sundown.  Unable to find them on radar, they use NOAA tsunami buoys to track them.  This is where they shoehorn the game elements, as the destroyer must fire its missiles blind, hoping for a hit.  It’s actually not as stupid as it sounds.

Meanwhile, Sam is (coincidentally) accompanying a veteran double amputee named Mick Canales (Gregory D. Gadson) into the Hawaiian mountains.  Where (coincidentally) they run into a communications station invaded by aliens.  Coincidentally (nod, nod, wink, wink.)  They discover that they have to take out the aliens before they use the communications station to call for reinforcements.

The last destroyer sinks while destroying the final alien ship, only leaving the mothership.  Without a vessel, the survivors commandeer the USS Missouri (‘Mighty Mo’) battleship at Pearl Harbor.  The ship is essentially a tourist attraction and the destroyer crew isn’t familiar enough with the old ship to pilot it.  Fortunately, several WW2 veterans of the Missouri are onboard for a celebration and help them pilot the Mo.  What follows is easily the best part of the movie, when they fire up the Missouri and engage the mothership.

This all sounds cheesy.  It is cheesy–but in a good way.  The movie uses real veterans like Gregory D. Gadson and the Mighty Mo vets.  Any movie that shows the level of love towards vets that this one does has a warm spot in my heart.

I won’t reveal much more, since I want you to watch this movie and give it a chance.  It’s got heart, even if the brains are a little haphazard.

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Dragonslayer: A Forgotten Fantasy Movie

Disney released Dragonslayer in the year 1981.  The movie came out only a couple of years after the less-than-stellar The Black Hole in 1979.  It is Disney’s next attempt at a more adult-themed movie.  For the most part, it succeeded.

Coming out of the dismal decade of the 70s, Disney tried everything to remain relevant.  This meant putting out less G-rated kids’ films and expanding their repertoire, and then along comes Dragonslayer.  At a superficial glance, it looks like a standard wizard’s apprentice fantasy tale, however it’s a lot darker.  A general sense of futility and grim finality obscure the few heroic deeds.  This is to accompany the Dark Ages setting.

The story begins with a wizard named Ulrich (Ralph Richardson) and his apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol) being visited by a group from the kingdom Urland.  The envoys wish to employ a wizard to destroy a dragon named Vermithrax.  The dragon holds the kingdom in bondage to its hunger and they regularly sacrifice young women with a lottery system.

The delightfully thuggish soldier Tyrian (John Hallam) and another young man named Valerian (Caitlin Clarke) test Ulrich’s magical power.  They stab him through the heart at his urging, only to have him die instantly.  Afterward, Ulrich’s magical amulet constantly materializes in front of Galen, urging him to take up Ulrich’s mission.

Galen follows the group back to Urland, during which Galen discovers Valerian is a ‘she’ after he joins her for a bath in a pond.  Valerian masquerades as a ‘he’ to escape the lottery. 

Shortly after arriving, Galen wields the amulet to bring down then entire mountain on top of Vermithrax’s lair.  Believing the dragon slain, the kingdom celebrates and Valerian ‘comes out’ as a woman.  The news of the dragon’s death is premature, however.  Havoc and swordplay ensue.

I don’t want to give it all away, so let me simply say that the producers spent a full quarter of the film’s entire budge on special effects.  Vermithrax is, quite simply, the most amazing and terrifying dragon ever put on film to this day.  The audience doesn’t get a good look at it until at least three quarters of the film’s length.  The build-up is worth it.  Vermithrax is everything a fantasy geek expects of a dragon villain: impressive and dreadful.  Nothing is cutesy or humanistic about Vermithrax–it’s a force of death and destruction. Bilbo is never having a conversation or riddle contest with this thing.  It’s obviously intelligent, but completely inhuman and malignant.

The special effects by ILM veteran Phil Tippet are extraordinary.  In fact, if you’re a young viewer who has never seen it, dig it up and watch it merely to see how a true master handled special effects before CGI.  Tippet created the monster through puppetry, practical effects and a type of stop-motion animation called Go Motion.  The combined techniques make you believe this winged nightmare might be real.

Lots of other good stuff is in this movie but the bleak tone and cryptic ending subtract somewhat.  It’s not perfect, but definitely worth watching for any fantasy fan.  Check it out.

Footnote: Ian McDiarmid (of Emperor Palpatine fame) has a brief cameo in the movie as a village priest who is burned to a crisp by Vermithrax after the priest tries to banish the dragon with his faith.

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Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds Computer Game

The Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds is an oddball offshoot of the RTS genre.  I am a bit of a real-time strategy freak.  I’ve played a lot of RTS games.  The Dune II game from 1993 became my first encounter with the genre and hooked me from the outset.  For a while I played them all.  Good, bad, and mediocre–it didn’t matter.  Must . . . play . . . all!

Along came the Jeff Wayne’s WOTW game in 1998.  Adoring the novel as well as the RTS genre, I jumped on it.

This game came out an an uncomfortable time in the RTS game advances.  It couldn’t be played online during a time when that was the growing rage.  It looked–and sounded!–nifty, but its formula varied from the established formula.

In a nutshell, it is neither fish nor fowl.  It’s a duckbilled platypus.

First, a little background.  The music on this game comes from Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds techno-music, art rock album from 1978.  If you have never listened to this album, do yourself a favor and check it out.  Anyway, I don’t need to elaborate since it is a kind of cult classic album.  The music gives a nice sense of eeriness to the proceedings in the game.

In the game, the player can play as either the humans or the Martians.  Unlike in the 1898 novel, the Martians are destroyed in England and divert their landings to Scotland.  (Picture the amusing thought of a Martian in a kilt, with a blue-painted face, screaming “Freedom!”.)  I assume they did this to give the war a definite front, rather than scattered Martian battles. 

Instead of merely a RTS, the game also has turns.  Sort of.  You have a strategic/production map where you look at all your sectors.  Time is halted on this screen until you advance it, usually by days.  The feature allows you to pick your research and production.  Like many RTS, each side has multiple resources they must use.  Humans have steel, coal and oil, while the Martians have copper, heavy elements and human blood! (The most ghoulishly amusing resource I’ve seen in any RTS game.)

British war technology in this is quite a bit more advanced than in the novel, despite being set in the same year of 1898.  A necessary change if you want the humans to have a prayer.  A steampunk vibe appears to be what they were going for and, for the most part, it works.  The game had sufficient entertainment value that I played it through once both as the humans and Martians. 

The graphics and gameplay are adequate, if uninspired.  Fighting as the humans is rough at the beginning, with no vehicles capable of defeating anything.  Your only chance is to build artillery–a lot of it.  You must simply endure Martian attacks until your technology is advanced enough to go on the offensive.  Try an early offensive will see your vehicles evaporate like a fart in the wind.  Playing as the Martians is more active, as you have an advantage right off the bat.  If you wade into a bunch of gun emplacements, you definitely can lose, though.

What I suspect truly doomed this game to obscurity was its lack of online options.  Honestly, I’m not sure it could have worked with the turn options.

JWWOTW isn’t great, nor is it terrible.  The highlight is (unsurprisingly) the soundtrack.  Production turns are an interesting idea, but clunky.  Multiple scenarios would have greatly expanded the playability as well.

Any fan of either H.G. Wells War of the Worlds or Jeff Wayne’s musical album ought to check it out.  There are multiple sites online where one can download it for free.

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Micronauts: The Coolest Toy Line Ever

In the dim, misty recesses of my youth, I encountered a toy line from Mego called “The Micronauts”.  Technically, the full title was: “The Interchangeable World of The Micronauts”.   “They Came From Inner Space” tagline accompanied it.  Simply put, these were the greatest toys of all time.  Even to the point that Marvel Comics had a successful comic book tie-in that outlived the toy line by several years.

Naturally, this line of toys originated–as most cool toys do–in Japan.  The original toy line came from the Japanese toy company Takara and was called “Microman”.  Mego distributed the bulk of these products under the Micronauts label in America.

I knew none of this as a kid.  All that mattered to me was the supreme coolness.  These toys rocked.  When it boasted ‘interchangeable’ it wasn’t kidding.  You could mix and match parts from pretty much every one of the figures and vehicles.  Plus, they looked rad.  Space Glider, Galactic Warrior, Pharoid, Time Traveler,  Acroyear, and Baron Karza were just a few of the neatest. 

Several of the figures were also vehicles as well.  Biotron turned into a big friggin’ tank and such.  Giant Acroyear turned into ships or other Acroyears. 

Baron Karza was probably the most unique figure, since most of his joints were magnetic ball joints.  You could move and pose the living shit out of him, as well as recombine him however you wanted.  The Baron had a horse he could combine with in a centaur-like fashion (named Andromeda, although I was too young to get the Greek Myth reference.)

The pride of my collection was the Battle Cruiser.  Never before had I seen something like this.  It was a massive ship that could separate into like a dozen ships or recombine into different ships.  (squeals in geekish delight)  Hornetroid closely followed in coolness–a giant, cybernetic mutant hornet you could put a pilot in.  How sweet is that?

While collecting the toys, I also read the comic.  I won’t get into too much detail, other than to say that the tragic genius Bill Mantlo wrote the series and it started off with Michael Golden doing the art chores.  Surprisingly, the story was quite a bit more adult than most comics at the time.  Yes, a toy tie-in was pretty advanced–and kinda dark (I won’t get started with Mantlo’s Rom.)

You may also be surprised that one of the characters from the comic is actually in the comic version of the Guardians of the Galaxy.  These toys have legs!

The bizarre thing is how few people outside of my age bracket have ever heard of the toys.  Sure, Transformers, GI Joe, Thundercats, etc.  But Micronauts languish in obscurity.

Ain’t right.  Go check out the internet for Micronauts pictures and go dig up some of the comics.  Breathe some life back into them.

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Quag Keep: The First D&D Novel

Lo, those many years ago (1981) when I read Andre Norton’s novel Quag Keep.  A copy presented itself in my Middle School library. A dragon appeared on the cover and fantasy had just fastened into my pubescent consciousness, leading to a reading.

Quag Keep is a queer duck of a novel.  Neither fish nor fowl, it slumbers in obscurity.  Set in the Greyhawk campaign world created by Gary Gygax, it is extremely referential to Dungeons & Dragons as a hobby, rather than game mechanics.  Literally.  Magic transforms a bunch of RPG nerds into their characters in Greyhawk via ‘cursed miniatures’.  No, really.

I know what you’re thinking.  This must be a stupid concept that breaks the fourth wall or just comes across as pretentious.  Surprisingly, it’s not.  Is it great?  No, but it’s not bad.  It moves quick, has enjoyable scenes and the characters (especially the main caracter, Milo Jagon) are interesting.  Moreover, because there is little to no attempt to shoehorn game mechanics, Andre manages to describe the world and situations without worrying about such trivia.  The game mechanics, ironically, are actually far less visible because they are literally part of the story.

Later books placed modern people into fantasy settings via games (such as the enjoyable Guardians of the Flame books) but this is the first.  Greyhawk wouldn’t be published for another two years.   This version of Greyhawk is misty and incomplete.  Andre takes that incompleteness and fills in the gaps with her own writing skills–not without success.  Unfazed by whether or not wizards are allowed to wear armor or wearboars cast spells, she does her level best to tell an interesting fantasy tale.  Quite honestly, I’d prefer the authors who presently crank out gaming novels to take a page from her playbook and do the same.

While researching this I noted that a sequel to Quag Keep, unimaginatively titled Return to Quag Keep, came out a couple of years after Andre Norton died.  I have zero desire to read this, since it smacks of pillaging a dead author’s stories for ideas.  I suspect Andre had little to nothing to do with this ‘sequel’.  I’ll pass.

If you like your gaming books bereft of gaming mechanics, would like to delve into the history of the hobby, or just read a fast, enjoyable fantasy romp, you could do far worse than Quag Keep.

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Adam Warlock and the Magus (Forgotten Gems)

adam-warlock-01Adam Warlock was a Marvel Comics character who first turned up in the pages of Fantastic Four in 1967.  Cobbled together by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and originally called ‘Him’, Warlock appeared sporadically for several years.  Roy Thomas later turned him into a kind of superhero messiah, inspired by (I’m not kidding) Jesus Christ Superstar.  Several goofy religious elements were used, including a death and resurrection. 

Jim Starlin entered the scene in 1975 as both writer and artist.  Warlock turned from a Christ figure into a paranoid schizophrenic.  To add insult to injury, Warlock battles a cosmic Universal Church of Truth (a thinly-veiled jab at Catholicism.)

(Side note: Jim later took another jab at Catholicism with his “Church of the Instrumentality” in Dreadstar.)

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It’s at this point that Adam Warlock gets interesting.  Jim’s take on Warlock struck me as a superhero version of Elric.  Starlin admits he was reading the Elric books at the time, but claims he read them after Warlock (I have my doubts.)  Parallels with Elric were obvious to me long before I read his claims.  Instead of a soul-drinking sword (Elric’s infamous Stormbringer,) Warlock has a soul-drinking gem on his forehead.  More than that, the existential angst of the two characters is nearly identical. 

adam-warlock-07Battling the Universal Church of Truth and its sinister leader, The Magus, Warlock engages the help of several characters familiar to younger readers–Gamora and Thanos.  Following several battles where Warlock devours enemies souls, he begins to go insane from the experience.  Finally encountering The Magus in person (complete with an Afro inspired by Angela Davis) he discovers that The Magus is his future self.  The Magus is what he will become after a thousand years of cosmic torture.

Cheery stuff, eh?

Thanos enters into the story when his protege, Gamora, fails to keep The Magus from adam-warlock-02‘marking’ Warlock to summon the being that will torture him: The In-Betweener (No, I didn’t make that up.)  Battling to save Warlock from his fate, it turns out that Thanos is only doing it because The Magus is the ‘champion of life’ and Thanos is ‘the champion of death’.  Even though The Magus is evil, he still aids life and civilization, whereas Thanos wants universal genocide.

To prevent becoming The Magus, Warlock commits ‘cosmic suicide’ by erasing his timeline in which he becomes The Magus.  Doomed to die in the near future, Warlock flies adam-warlock-06off after The Magus disappears from existence.  Thanos later kills Adam while in battle with The Avengers, only to have Warlock’s soul briefly return from the Soul Gem and turn Thanos to stone.

While melodramatic, the artwork and writing (especially at the time) are pretty damn good. Overly-melodramatic and angst-ridden, but good.

Much later, Starlin retconned the Soul Gem as just one of the six Infinity Stones in the adam-warlock-08Infinity Gauntlet storyline.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe is right on the cusp of introducing the last of the ‘Infinity Stones’–the Soul Stone.  Figured now was a good time to recap its origins.

Go dig the original or reprints up and take

You thought I made it up, didn't you?

You thought I made it up, didn’t you?

a look.  Well worth a second glance.

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