Monday, October 07, 2019

Heavy Metal History

Pictured - a sabaton.
Over the years, I've enjoyed music from a wide variety of genres and styles. Lately, I've been really into Sabaton, a metal band out of Sweden. Taking their name from the technical term for a piece of armor covering the foot, their songs, for the most part, have a historical focus to them, mostly (as you might imagine) memorializing various wars and battles.

This focus has enabled the band to engage in some interesting and unusual promotional collaborations. One such is Sabaton History, a YouTube channel hosted by popular Internet-based historian Indy Neidell that examines the background of a given songs' subjects. For example, one of my favorite Sabaton songs is "Blood of Bannockburn", about the Scottish wars for independence:

Much to my delight, the second ever episode of Sabaton History covered the song; explaining the greater historical context, the immediate tactical byplay, and even the writing of the song:

While an excellent example of the format of the show, it is a bit atypical in that subject isn't from one of the World Wars of the early 20th Century. If I have one criticism of the show, it's that it does tend to focus on that era - and to be fair, not only does it appear to be Neidell's historical specialty, but Sabaton just this summer released The Great War, an entire album of songs about that conflict.

While metal often has something of a dark reputation, and indeed neither Sabaton's songs nor their history videos shy away from the realities of war and bloodshed, they never fall into a meaningless, nihilistic glorification of violence. Much to the contrary, the subjects they choose primarily exemplify virtues like courage and faithfulness, even in the face of overwhelming odds, and ensure that the stories of these heroes - individuals and armies - are remembered for another generation.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Warriors of the Space Crusade

Picture, if you will, a crusading knight. Struck by a sudden war-weariness, he abandons the fight against the infidel and wanders into the desert, finding himself in an enemy-controlled city. There he wrestles with his newfound pacifistic desire while at the same time freeing and converting enough of the enslaved populace to kick off a full-blown revolt.

A mid-20th-century Technicolor epic? A serial novel from some long-lost historical pulp magazine? In fact, this is the general plot of Justified: The Saga of the Nano Templar, the latest novel from the most electrifying Hispanic in science fiction, Jon Del Arroz. Mixing the rather obvious historical allegory with familiar Mil-SF tropes like power armor and space navies, what comes out is a satisfying tale of equal parts derring-do and Christian philosophizing.

Yes, Christian, for despite the book seeming to take place in a galaxy far, far away with no humans whatsoever in it (although as far as I could tell Templar Drin's enemies, the Sekarans, receive no physical description that differentiates them from humans), the religion of the Elorians is basically Christianity. There are, naturally, some altered details - it's oddly Narnian in that respect - but close enough that the tension between "loving your enemy" and "protecting the innocent" echoes all too strongly with the sympathetic reader.

That tension being the main internal conflict for our Nano Templar means that he remains a very static character throughout. This provides an interesting contrast with the book's other viewpoint character, Anais, who goes from leporine party brat to defiant harem slave to revolutionary guerrilla. The nascent romance between her and Drin was, I thought, one of the book's few weak points, as it bounced hard against the Templar's vows of chastity and generally got lost in the more general swirl of Drin's search for meaning and divine goodwill. As for whether he finds it, well, I think the title of the book is a big clue here.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for this honest review.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Read Old Stories

A wizard's tower with a captured extra-terrestrial. A murder-by-arson with a shocking twist. A robotic policeman. A mountain from which no-one has returned. An eerie painting that menaces its owner. A swashbuckling stagecoach robber. An underground boxing match in an exotic port.

What do all these elements have in common? They're all from classic stories from a bunch of different genres that I've recently read thanks to the Pulp Classics Reading Club. Brainchild of author David Eyk, this free weekly email delivers stories from some of the best authors of the early 20th century - the likes of Robert E. Howard, Dashiell Hammett, Harry Harrison, Manly Wade Wellman, Max Brand, and Lord Dunsany. What inspired Eyk to such a project? In his own words:

In the erudite and cultured Wisdom of the Current Year, it is an accepted posture to scoff at “escapist literature”: it’s alright to read it if you’re twelve.
But the Wisdom of the Ages tells us something different: a certain form of story nourishes and nurtures our psyches. Especially in hard times, we fall back on the stories closest to our hearts for encouragement and, yes, escape.

If this sounds like something you'd like to get in on, I encourage you to sign up for the Pulp Classics Reading Club here. And if you want to read the stories I alluded to above? Check below the jump.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Three Hearts, Three Lions, Two Wizards

Recently I've been reading Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson, which is about a man fighting in World War II who discovers he has another life as a famous knight in a world that resembles the chivalric romances of King Arthur and similar tales.

It's an enjoyable read, and a fascinating work for any number of reasons - the both implicit and explicit Christianity, the clear antecedents for some elements of fantasy role-playing games (I believe Jeffro addressed this in Appendix N), the way the main character uses his modern knowledge to survive some of the more fantastic elements - although this last, I thought, was somewhat overused and undercut my belief in the setting, to an extent. The rationalization of the giant's cursed gold as being irradiated by the process of turning to stone was an especially bad example.

But the one element that really made me take notice was in Chapter 15, when the knight and his companions visit a wizard to see about getting the knight back to his home world. Said wizard has a sign on his house that reads:

Master Magici
Spells, Charms, Prophecies, Healing, Love Potions
Blessings, Curses, Ever-Filled Purses
Special rates for parties

It's not, I think, intended to be entirely serious, and indeed the wizard in question admits that some of the services are for advertising only. However, it brought to mind another advertisement by a wizard some half a century later:

Lost Items Found, Paranormal Investigations
Consulting, Advice, Reasonable Rates
No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties, or Other

Now, I've checked the Word of Jim website and have seen no definitive proof of this, but I cannot believe that Harry's ad isn't a response to Martinus'. Not just the format, but especially that last line seems to set up a deliberate dichotomy between the two.

 Whether this specific influence is intended, unconscious, or imagined, I would say that both The Dresden Files and Three Hearts and Three Lions are worth reading. Indeed, as a standalone work the latter is in some ways, despite being originally published in 1953, more accessible.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Meet the New Doc, Same as the Old Doc

Most of the time, out there in the wilds of the Internetz, coming across something completely flabbergasting is a negative experience. About a week ago, however, I came across something that was definitely positive, if still flabbergasting.

Over at the Castalia House blog, one of their periodic posts highlighting recent releases in Indie and small-press adventure fiction caught my eye with a header mentioning the Man of Bronze, a pseudonym of the classic adventure pulp science-hero and superhero precursor Doc Savage. Now, on previous occasions Castalia House has highlighted the release of the new Doc Savage stories being produced by Will Murray and Altus Press, but this case turned out to be far more interesting.

Except for this one, which is replaced with
the Dynamite comic adaptation cover.
In fact, somebody has released about a dozen of the original Doc Savage pulp stories as Kindle e-books, for about $3.50 a pop. The publisher is listed only as "Amazon Digital Services", and the text appears to be taken from the original 1930s - '40s magazines (complete with introductory illustrations), though the covers are the classic James Bama pieces from the Bantam paperback editions of the '60s - '70s.

With the sole exception of Doc's introductory adventure seen here, none of the specific titles are ones that I'm familiar with. On the strength of The Man of Bronze, however, I'm perfectly willing to recommend them to anyone interested in stories of adventure and heroics.

However, I'm still curious as to how exactly this cornucopia came to be. I'm pretty sure that Doc is not yet in the U.S. public domain (Steamboat Willie is older), yet besides the Castalia House piece I can't find any other references to them. They're not from Altus or the Radio Archives people, as far as I can tell, and I'm not sure who would own the copyright on them anyway. Conde Nast? The price seems way too reasonable to have been set by any major publisher. Maybe it's a stealth marketing campaign for the rumored upcoming Doc Savage movie starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

In any event, whether the rest of the 100+ Doc Savage stories are going to be hitting Amazon shortly, or whether these are actually pirated editions that will shortly be yanked, this is a great low-investment way to check out the original tales of a key figure in the history of pop culture.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

So What Is This #PulpRevolution, Anyway?

By now, regular readers of this blog will have noticed several posts using the #pulprevolution tag, and might be wondering what I mean by that descriptor. Happily, author J. D. Cowen has just made an excellent blog post that recaps the last several years of rediscovery of what pulp fiction really means.

"Of course, pulp fiction has never fully gone away. But that isn't without lack of trying. It has been used as little more than an insult or a cheesy aesthetic for those who hated them. It has been used as an insult by those who never bothered to read the original works. Pulp became a synonym for trash, and nothing else. The Tarantino movie didn't help. The tradition of genre fiction actually goes back through the pulps and the penny dreadfuls all the way to at least Poe. By ignoring the pulps you are cutting the line of tradition and thumbing your nose at it. Those who trash it have no idea what they are actually doing."

The post compiles a lot of the discussions, videos, and controversies of this movement to date (including one of the most objective takes on the whole Sad/Rabid Puppies Hugo Awards thing I've ever seen), making it a valuable resource for those interested in improving their writing craft.

And though it's only been a few years in the making, there's already been progress made. Jeffro Johnson recently had cause to give a quick sketch of some of the standout authors in the movement, a few of which have been mentioned here before.

If we can take it for granted that the past forty years has been a veritable Dark Age for science fiction and fantasy, then having P. Alexander’s Cirsova magazine has been an absolute godsend. Has it come close to the very best of the Weird Tales era? No one that I know of has argued that. But I believe he can go toe to toe with some of the better works in Andrew J. Offutt’s Swords Against Darkness series. More recently he has managed to go further and acquire stories that are on par with the better efforts you could find in Planet Stories.
You’d rather have the next H. P. Lovecraft? Well maybe he hasn’t arrive yet. But Misha Burnett‘s New Wave style handling of the Great Old One’s oeuvre  sure did manage to raise the bar on what I expect today’s short fiction authors.
Who has managed to capture some of the more thrilling qualities of Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard? Schuyler Hernstrom, hands down. Who has succeeded in imbuing his stories with the more compelling aspects of Lord Dunsany, C. S. Lewis, and 1930s space opera? John C. Wright. Who has diligently applied himself to reclaiming pulp era heroism and romance? Jon Mollison. Who has gone from making a work comparable to a short Andre Norton novel to recapitulating the fire of an early 1940’s Leigh Brackett? Dominka Lein!

While I haven't read everything by every author on that list, Cirsova magazine, John C. Wright, and Jon Mollison have all made appearances, to much-deserved praise. And Jeffro modestly neglects to mention his own Appendix N, which as J. D. Cowen noted above deserves a great deal of credit as a catalyst for the movement. But you don't have to take our word for it - lots of these author have free works available on their websites (many of which are in my blogroll) or for their newsletter subscribers. And speaking of Cirsova, this week the fifth issue is free on Amazon Kindle - it's a great example of some of the ideas being thrown around in the Pulp Revolution (especially considering it has a story by Schuyler Hernstrom taking place in Misha Burnett's Eldritch Earth setting, and it's one of the highlights of the issue, too!).

Possibly the most astounding thing about the Pulp Revolution is the way it's expanded over only a few short years. If you're a fan of science fiction and fantasy and have felt that recent mainstream offerings lacked something, now's the time to dig in and try something new - the only place to go from here is up!

Saturday, March 03, 2018

The Pulp Revolutionary Sci-Fi of Jon Mollison

OK, now that I've given author Jon Mollison grief a couple of times over the cover of his novel Sudden Rescue, I probably ought to mention that it's really a pretty good book. In fact, last summer was something of a breakout season for Jon, and so far I've picked up three of his novels and thought them all great reads.

I still say he looks like Luigi.
Sudden Rescue, released just under a year ago, starts with an archetype we're all very familiar with, the independent space hauler who's not afraid to shade the finer points of smuggling law. Captain E. Z. Sudden would be right at home with the likes of Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds, dodging space pirates and overbearing AI empires until he is suddenly thrust into galactic politics with the recovery of some lost cargo containers, one of which contains a member of the local space nobility named Karenina. When it is revealed that she was on her way to a wedding that could make or break the human alliance against the aforementioned AI, she and Sudden must embark on a journey through treacherous peril and exotic, imaginative locations to stop a terrible war.

The next novel, and probably my favorite of the three, is Adventure Constant. This one uses travel to parallel dimensions rather than space, postulating a world where the physical laws of the universe encourage swashbuckling and derring-do. I suspect Jon especially enjoyed the world-building on this one, what with the Panama Canal becoming a lizardman-infested suicide run, Hawaii still an independent kingdom, and the US equivalent run by an office called the Autocrat of Liberty, the current holder of which is described as a "bombastic business tycoon who had rallied the common man to his cause and was even now attempting to roust the cancerous elitists and their foot soldiers from the country." OK, that last one probably didn't take much imagination.

As a crossover enthusiast, I also need to mention the couple of times that Jack Dashing, the hero from our world transported via crashing rocket to this new one, makes a literary reference only to discover that he's accidentally talking about real people. When this happens to the Three Musketeers it's kind of understandable, since half the characters in that work were real people anyway, but when Jack mouths off to a British spy about his 00 number, he barely manages to get the words "secret agent named James -" out before the spy is question goes from demanding where he heard that to ranting about fraudulent poster boys.

With his next release, Jon Mollison returns to the stars with the aptly named Space Princess. In this case, however, the princess is an infant, rescued by a fairly standard American Catholic family and caught up in the political intrigue and space combat that naturally follows. Jon does a neat trick here by making a setting that shares some broad similarities with that of Sudden Rescue - both are interstellar monarchies - but is quite individual at the same time. In fact it reminds me a bit of a lighter and softer Warhammer 40,000, what with all the cathedral- and chapel-shaped ships being used by the Space Catholics (the red crescent fighters and minaret-bedecked capital ships of the Holy Terra-threatening enemy weren't terribly subtle, either). But the best part is the way in which the ordinary family rises to their very un-ordinary circumstances.

In a way, (and given a flexible definition of "ordinary") that's something that all three of these works have in common. In addition, of course, to being fun, adventure-filled works that rest on sound Christian principles without being preachy. The heroes are all heroic, in every sense of the world, and their sense of optimism makes a fine alternative to the too often nihilistic spirit present in many SF works today.