Once upon a time, there was a BBC car show called Top Gear. It was a fun little show that eventually became popular even outside England, due in large part to the three hosts - Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond - whose camaraderie, automotive knowledge, and general attitude of amateurish enthusiasm made what could have been a boring news show into an award-winning phenomenon.
Unfortunately, even the most popular TV programs have the detractors, and over the years Top Gear received many complaints, not an insignificant number of which involved Jeremy's humor not being appreciated by humorless scolds. Even more unfortunately, some of these scolds were executives at the BBC, and eventually an excuse was found (a fistfight with a producer, or something) to kick Jeremy off the show. James and Richard resigned in protest, the BBC hired a carefully diverse array of forgettable replacements (the only one who sticks in the memory being Joey from Friends), and it looked like the spirit of Top Gear would be gone forever.
But then, Clarkson, May, and Hammond got together with one of the producers whom Jeremy didn't punch, got in contact with Amazon, and we all got to go on the Internet and find this:
I really like this whole opening sequence, not just because it marks the beginning of a terrific show (The Grand Tour is basically Top Gear with everything the BBC could legally block removed or altered), but as a piece of art in its own right. The choice of the Hothouse Flowers' cover of "I Can See Clearly Now" works really well as the mood swings from dour to triumphant, and is perfectly timed to little moments like Jeremy's face lighting up when James and Richard's muscle cars catch up with his. Best of all is the moment when the saxophone solo revs up, and the hosts are joined by a magnificent escort of cars from across automotive history. From modern supercars to pulp-era touring models, standard-issue daily drivers to outrageous art cars . . . now there's a diversity worth celebrating!
While I don't particularly consider myself a "Gamer" in the way the term is normally used these days, I have over the years enjoyed many video games, especially ones from the Super Mario Brothers series. It was therefore with great interest that I read this article last week on Tor.com, "Super Mario Brothers: Fantasy or Science Fiction?".
Now, while Tor.com (much like its paper-book-publishing big brother) is often (usually) ground zero for much that is wrong-headed or actively malicious about today's speculative fiction culture, this particular article is fairly decent, with some interesting thoughts about the interconnectedness of the Super Mario franchise. However, I couldn't help but notice that, aside from a brief invocation of "science fantasy" towards the end, the article is pretty set on its binary SF-or-Fantasy question, when a different way of looking at the genre question comes up with a completely different, but much better-fitting answer.
The other day I was browsing YouTube and happened across this highly amusing (if slightly-mis-titled) video:
What it lacks in not having the whole six-hour movie saga, of course, it makes up for by including snippets from the Animated Series, the Telltale video game, and even screen-shots from the tie-in comics, both the current IDW series and the old Harvey Comics stories. The inclusion of the former, by the way (not to mention the 30th anniversary short from a couple years back), makes this technically more up-to-date, if far less comprehensive, than the excellent Back in Time by Greg Mitchell.
In a way, it illustrates both the positives and negatives of opening up such a well-crafted story into an Expanded Universe. Some consistency of tone and quality is lost, a well as opening up many more opportunities for continuity errors to creep in (already a particular peril for time-travel stories). At the same time, however, the scope is greatly increased - as we see in the video, Back to the Future: The Animated Series hit many of the most popular eras of historical fiction, with pirates and dinosaurs and knights and Romans, among others. The ongoing IDW comics do the same thing for the characters, giving us such gems as Griff Tannen's 2035 employment as a police officer (!) and Doc's mid-1960s attempt to get government funding for his experiments (which somehow resulted in Marty coming back from the future only speaking Russian).
If nothing else, an active EU shows that a story like Back to the Future still resonates with the listeners, even after over 30 years. Fan projects, like this video, are another encouraging sign, and I'm glad to be able to share it.
. . . is often coming, but never quite seems to get here. Scott Oden's new historical fantasy novel A Gathering of Ravens, however, brings it as close as it's ever been.
While this is not the first time that Oden has tackled writing from the orcish point of view - the short story "Amarante" in Skelos II is another example - it's certainly the most ambitious. The story follows Grimnir, who is definitely an orc even if the word is never used (the neologism kaunr is used for Grimnir to describe himself, while other cultures use skraelingr, orcneas, or fomoraig) - murderous, crude, and bloodthirsty. After kidnapping an incredulous Christian traveler as a guide, he sets off from his lair in 10th-Century Denmark in search of the Dane that killed his brother, Grendel.
Well, almost. The brother's name is actually Hrungnir and his killer's Bjarki (a name that, like Beowulf, means bear), but the parallels are undeniable - Hrungnir's arm being displayed along with his head is just one of the more obvious. I was delighted to note there were even shout-outs to more modern versions of the story - at one a Dane begins reciting the famous poem from the film The Thirteenth Warrior ("Lo, there do I see my father . . . "), and certain spoilery facts of Bjarki Half-Dane's backstory are somewhat reminiscent of the 2007 Beowulf film.
Another appearance of the White Tree.
But Beowulf isn't the only piece of meat in this literary stew. There's some Tolkien, of course - a tale about an orc could hardly avoid him - but it's surprisingly superficial. There's a scene with some dwarves (taller than Grimnir!), one of whom is named Nori; and there's a section with a willow-spirit who, in addition to acting like close kin of Old Man Willow, uses heraldry described similar to Gondor's.
In terms of overall style and theme, though, A Gathering of Ravens owes much more to Robert E. Howard than to J. R. R. Tolkien - not just little things like the dog named Conan and the Viking that swears by Crom, but the way the cosmic conflict between paganism and Christianity (not for nothing, I think, is the Battle of Clontarf the climax of the book) forms the background of a personal revenge story, in which the actors shake out in some surprising directions. Not to mention the action and combat scenes, which richly evokes the hard-scrabble life-or-death struggles such events would have been.
Overall, as someone with both an interest in fantasy fiction and medieval history this book was a joy to read - it's obvious the author is well-read on both the historical and mythical background of Viking-age Europe. I have heard that Scott Oden intends to pen more adventures of Grimnir the Last Orc, and can only say the sooner the better.
Favorite line: "This was no game of thrones where generals sacrificed and maneuvered on the backs of their soldiers; this was the most primal sort of conflict - Odin's weather, the red chaos of slaughter - where men stood breast-to-breast and shield-to-shield, and dealt the same blows they took in kind."
Somehow I missed the initial announcement since he's already up to Chapter 2, but after what I can only assume was a rousing success with his pulpy gonzo space-opera web serial, science fiction grandmaster John C. Wright has announced his latest effort, Lost on the Last Continent:
And he wastes no time in getting to the stuff adventure literature is made of: UFO/space-plane chases, dogfights with dinosaurs, gunfights* with dinosaurs, treacherous landscapes, pithy inner dialogue - "He had two hands, after all. But only one Holland & Holland", - the works. And given that this is John C. Wright, I have no doubt that beneath all the spectacle will be a spiritual foundation both solid and thought-provoking.
A few months back I talked about a podcast called Geek Gab, mentioning that I wasn't a regular listener, but was interested because they were interviewing Jeffro Johnson about his "Appendix N" book. Since then, however, I've been tuning in more often than not, even as they've grown from a single weekly show to a veritable online network.
In one recent episode of the spinoff show Geek Gab Game Night, the guest, game designer Jim Desborough, was talking about his adaption to tabletop gaming of the Gor novels by John Norman. Now, I'm only familiar with this series through it's rather dubious reputation, but the podcast covered most of the non-dubious basics - Gor is a planet in Earth's orbit (only on the opposite side of the sun so it can't be detected from Earth), which has been seeded by inscrutable aliens with small populations of various Earth cultures spirited away and kept from progressing to far down certain areas of technological development, notably firearms.
In the course of the discussion, a brief mention was made of S. M. Stirling's time-traveling Nantucket trilogy that began with Island in the Sea of Time, which got me thinking about the spin-off series that Stirling started with Dies the Fire. That book begins with a catastrophe similar to a worldwide EMP pulse that also depowers gunpowder, somehow. As the books go on, there's a recurring theme - calling it a subplot would be giving it too much credit - of people studying what they call the Change and concluding that, scientifically, it makes absolutely no sense. Eventually it is revealed that, like on Gor, humanity is being artificially kept in its Medieval Stasis by inscrutable aliens*, albeit ones considerably less flashy than the ones on Gor.
Even more intriguingly, the setting has gone through a number of time-skips and is now a couple of generations from the Change. One of the more interesting aspects, as the character's horizons expand, is that they keep meeting different groups of people who've survived psychologically by taking a shared element - say, the RCMP or the Boy Scouts - and making it the foundation of a new culture. This tends to give the map, at least in North America, a sort of anachronistic crazy-quilt feel, much like the descriptions of Gor with its chronologically diverse groups of alien-abducted Earth people.
So was Stirling intentionally riffing on these elements of the Gor setting? I don't know of any concrete evidence one way or another, but I do suspect it to be an unconscious influence. Of course, it could also be a coincidence** that the main villain of the first few books is named Norman, and has a bit of the, shall we say, Gorean philosopher about him . . .
*Actually an inscrutable far-future human gestalt super-mind, or something.
**More certainly a coincidence, and certainly more of a stretch, is the appearance of an ersatz Tarzan in one of the stories in the universe-opening short story collection Stirling edited a few years back. Tarzan, of course, was an invention of Edgar Rice Burroughs along with John Carter, whose Barsoomian adventures the first few Gor books are said to be a New Wave-ish pastiche of.
Earlier this week the nominees for the 2017 Hugo Awards were announced, and while for the most part I can't really gin up much of a reaction I was quite gratified to see that Cirsova Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine has won a nomination (which, these days, is almost more prestigious than actually winning) for Best Semiprozine. Now, I've been an eager reader of Cirsova since it premiered on Kickstarter in January 2016, but have inexplicably failed to talk about it here.
And I'm not the only one who thinks so - shortly after the issue was published, Misha Burnett opened up the "Eldritch Earth" setting for other writers to use, and the just-released Issue #5 of Cirsova is reported to have several of the resulting stories. Alas, while I have downloaded the issue I haven't yet found time to read it, but I'm definitely looking forward to it.
Certainly the middle three issues have consistently met the expectations set by #1. While there's certainly an emphasis on science-fantasy stories of one sort or another, there's really something for everyone here. Just to give a quick idea, some of the other stories that impressed me the most included -
"The Lion's Share" by J. D. Brink, from Issue #3, featuring a space pirate operating in the classic piratical mode.
"Blood and Bones: Caribbean 1645" by Jim Breyfogle, also from Issue #3, in which a young wizard pulls a fast one on both the colonial government and a pirate crew.
"The Lady of the Amorous City" by Edward Ermelac, from Issue #4, in which a not-yet-King Arthur fights a really weird knight.
And that's just a few of the dozens of stories that I found the most memorable - I haven't even mentioned the essays by Jeffro Johnson and others analyzing the older pulp stories, or the fact that Issue #3 was designated the "Pirate Issue", or hardly anything other than the surface of this fine magazine. And to top it all off, all the content from the first two issues is available free at the links above!
Even if, like me, you're a fan of science fiction or fantasy but don't consider yourself a short fiction reader, if anything would change your mind, Cirsova would. I really don't know of anything else (except maybe Skelos) like it.
Well, we've had some schedule slippage, which I apologize for, but I have a semi - decent excuse in that some personal life changes meant I was without ready Internet access for some of the last month. On the plus side, I was able to finish both Nine Princes in Amber and its first sequel, The Guns of Avalon. Before I get to my thoughts on them, however, I wanted to highlight a bit of (less than hot-off-the-presses) relevant news - The Chronicles of Amber appears to be in production as a television series.
As neat as it would be to see, the most interesting thing about the press release is the many comparisons to Game of Thrones, especially the ones that claim the Amber was an inspiration for Westros. Now, I have yet to read any of the books and have only seen a little of the show, but I can definitely understand where such comparisons come from, given all that happens in Amber in these relatively short books.
Alright, so the last 2016 Science Fiction and Fantasy History Month post is . . . quite late, and I apologize for that (I'll make my excuses when I'm finally done with it). In the meanwhile, yesterday the podcast Geek Gab released their 84th episode, "Super Secrets of Appendix N"*. Now, I'm not a regular listener to Geek Gab, but I was especially interested because the guest this week was none other than Jeffro Johnson, who, as I've mentioned, inspired last month's blogging topic (he even gave it a nice shoutout at the Castalia House blog).
So I was interested to hear what he'd have to say on the topic:
Wow. That turned into quite the manifesto, at the end. If you're at all interested in the history and current state of science fiction and fantasy literature, you should definitely give this a listen.
*Defined most poetically in the episode as "a list of the stuff Gary Gygax ripped off to make Dungeons & Dragons.