Friday, August 26, 2011

What kind of week has it been

So, going into this week, I figured I would mention that I hit 500 miles after a year of lunchtime walks, but thought Jen's sister's first baby would be our big news. Then I thought it would be Hurricane Irene. Then we had that little temblor on Tuesday and I thought I might write something about that. (I first noticed it through ripples in a glass of water on a nearby desk, just like in Jurassic Park and I thought that might make for an interesting hook.)  And then Lily had an accident and everything changed.

On Tuesday, I did my morning routine, grabbed my lunch bag, kissed Lily and Jen on my way out and started my drive out to work. I got there an hour later, turned on my computer, put my phone into airplane mode and got a cup of coffee and settled into my morning work routine. (The reason I put my phone into airplane mode is because connectivity is so awful that it runs down the battery while searching for a signal.) I got back to my desk with my coffee and I noticed that I had an email from Jen. I thought that was odd, as I'm the one who usually sends her email and she only tends to write as a reply, but she's sent early morning emails in the past, so it wasn't unheard of. This one just said: "Please check your phone messages", which didn't sent off any alarm bells, but the subject line was "Lily", which did.

So I reactivated the phone and called into voice mail and Lily, shortly after being dropped off, had reached for a lunch bag full of goodies on the counter overhead, pulled it by the strap and pulled down a mug of hot tea on herself. It was just the kind of silly accident that happens even to the best little kids when you take your eyes off them for a second.

Just the day before, Lily had been sitting on the couch, not watching what she was doing, and she kicked over a full glass of chocolate milk on a big pile of Magic: The Gathering cards I had given her because she liked the art on them. We cleaned it up, and I made a little joke about Lily continuing the family tradition, because when Jen and I first started dating, she had left the window open in my car and it had rained and ruined a bunch my cards. So I told Lily that she needed to be more careful so we can avoid accidents like that.

Jen works a lot closer to where Lily was than I do, and I figured that I couldn't give her anything she wasn't already getting from Jen, so I made the difficult choice of staying at work for the rest of the day. At first it looked like they'd be in and out, and then we learned that they wanted to keep her overnight, and then it looked like it might be several days in the hospital. So I quickly swung by home on, packed some stuff and then hit the hospital.

Lily wasn't as bad off as I had been afraid and not nearly as bad off as she could have been. She was playing with a family of potato heads with Jen when I walked in. She had second degree burns on her neck and chest and where it wasn't covered by gauze, it was lobster red, but the water missed her face, so we're counting our blessings.

Lily's in the pediatric ward. The place where she eventually wound up has a good burn ward, but not a dedicated children's burn ward. They just send the specialists up from the regular burn ward for the kids.

Jen went home that night and I stayed with Lily overnight. We couldn't get the TV in the room to work, but I had brought our laptop and we watched movies on that. They had a pretty complete library of DVDs in the playroom just across the hall from us. We were sharing a room with another family with an even younger kid who had been burned, but I just had Lily put on headphones so as not to disturb them. We watched a lot of fairy tale movies and a Batman animated movie, Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman, which wound up being pretty good. After watching it, Lily decided that Batman was one of her boyfriends. She's up to thirteen now, and that total just climbs daily. I told her that I hope Batman has some aloe in his utility belt, but she didn't appreciate that.

I caught some sleep on the couch there, but I was mostly awake all night. I had some books and my e-reader. There had been some trouble establishing an IV during the day, so they waited until she was asleep. I knew she was a deep sleeper, but I was rather amazed that she slept through the whole process. 

Jen came back early Thursday morning and we present for the scrubbing of her wounds.  We had the option of either sedating her and doing a deep cleaning or giving her a general anesthetic and dressing her with a biosynthetic material called biobrane. I was nervous about a general, as things rarely go wrong, but there's always the chance for something to go catastrophically wrong, so we opted for sedation and comprehensive wound cleaning when he was loopy. That went well enough. She came out of it fine and was chatting with the nurses and offering them make-believe princess outfits and magical castles twenty minutes after the procedure.

She got a lot of visitors during that time and I managed to catch a little bit of sleep while she was napping. Jen works near the hospital so she put in a half day of work, and then came and took over the parenting duties when she finished there. I headed home and collapsed on to the bed. I woke up, showered and shaved for what felt like the first time in weeks and came in to work. I talked with Jen since getting in and learned that Lily gets to come home today. It was a tense couple of days, but our friends and family were very supportive and all things considered, we got off pretty easy.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Captain Ahab has to go hunt his whale

We had a pleasant weekend. I'm getting spoiled by these. On Friday, I got together with the handful of coworkers I don't want to stab and had lunch at a local Indian place that was recently rebuilt after a fire burned it down a year ago. It's called the Clay Oven, and it has the traditional clay oven, but apparently the fire was caused by an overheated laptop battery. It was pretty nice, and I was feeling stuffed well past dinner time.

On Saturday, Lily had another birthday party. Jen took her over while I manned the for to facilitate her Craig's List sale of Lily's old little kid bed. Despite it being a Craig's List sale, no one involved was axe-murdered by anyone else and it went off without a hitch.

On Sunday it was down to Cape May for a whale watch. Though we vacationed there, we haven't done it as a day trip in quite a while. We went with our friends Karen and Sherman, and they drove. I had put a bunch of PDFs on my B&N Nook, which I had picked up after Christmas, and I was really impressed with its performance. It was really responsive, and it held a charge forever.

I hadn't used it much up until then, because it couldn't read the PDFs for which I had originally bought it, and then, when I took it on our vacation, it locked up completely when I was using it to read Lily a story. I got it going again though, and I decide to give it another whirl. In the comments section, Chris had suggested the Cordwainer Smith story, "The Game of Rat and Dragon" and pointed out a link where it's available under Project Gutenberg. (Here's the link
. You should read the story. It's great.) I PDF'd the file and loaded that into the e-reader, and really enjoyed it. It doesn't seem 50 years old.

We got to Cape May and walked around for a bit and then got on board the boat. It was a three hour tour and there were several jokes along those lines. It got windy briefly and pink plastic bags were passed around for passengers to fill. Karen promised me that the whales would climb on the boat and sign autographs, but the whales never showed. (There was rain in the forecast and I think they were afraid of getting wet.) We did see some dolphins, though.

My phone got a little wet, which resulted in me taking a couple pictures like this,

I think that's my hand, but I'm not sure

but I eventually got it dried off and took a cool picture of this thing in the bay. 

I'm not sure what it is is, but it looks like it should be in Fallout: Cape May

We went to a shitty diner after the boat trip, and the crazy Greek lady harranged Karen for not cleaning her plate. I'm sorry I missed it. I had chosen that moment to use the restroom, and apparently she came up, gesturing wildly and asking in broken English what was wrong. Nothing was wrong; Karen just wasn't hungry. I'm disappointed I missed the show, though.

Then it was a trip home, where Sherman very graciously drove. I accidentally grabbed Karen's leftovers, because I thought they were Jen's, but she left behind the plastic bag with her swimming suit in it, so I guess we didn't really come out ahead there. 

The appeal of Elric

Yay, my first request! Off in the comments, Zach asked me to expound a little on why I like the Elric cycle of stories. Never being one to pass up the opportunity to prattle on at length, here's my "What Elric means to me," post.

I started playing Dungeons & Dragons at about nine years old, and consequently, before I had read a lot of the works that had influenced it, so I still tend to view things through the lens of my first experience. Elric was one of the bigger influences on the mythology of the game, in particular, the Law versus Chaos paradigm Moorcock created. (Or perhaps he just popularized it. I know that he's made the claim that he "created" the concept and the phrase, "multiverse", but that's always struck me as somewhat absurd, as the idea of parallel worlds has been around forever, and once you start thinking about those, multiverse is just about the first term to occur to anyone.)

Moorcock's writing is occasionally beautiful. The stories are seldom complex. When shopping for my plane trip back from the UK a few years back, I picked up a collection of every Conan short story. They are fun stories, but there's not always a lot of variety, and they are best enjoyed in small doses, otherwise you may find yourself doing what I did, which was putting the book down and exclaiming, "Didn't I just read that story?"

Despite the fact that Elric was designed to be as different from Conan as possible (a cultured, infirm albino who topples his birthright kingdom and slays the princess), the framework of individual Elric stories are very, very similar to one another. Taken alone, I think any given story is an entertaining read, but reading them as a part of a collection, they all kind of blur together.

There are some Elric stories that I haven't read, Fortress of the Pearl and Revenge of the Rose that a friend says are very good and show just what Moorcock is capable of writing when he's not churning out stories as fast as he can write them for pulp magazines. I haven't read those, but I did enjoy his Corum cycle of stories. The first I got through the sci-fi book club in the pre-internet days. If I didn't send my response back quickly enough, they would send me that month's selection. I wound up with the shitty Dune prequels that way, as well as a collection of the first Corum trilogy. 

One thing I thought was really interesting was how we had a crossover in one the Elric stories where Elric meets up with two other aspects of the Eternal Champion, Corum and Erekose. Later on in the Corum cycle, we see the same encounter from Corum's point of view. I thought that was really nifty.

Also, I like how he subverted a lot of the fantasy tropes. Corum was a Vadhagh, and much longer lived than a human. He settles down with a human woman at the end of the first trilogy and then the second one picks up seventy years or so later, after she's died of old age. Later on in the second trilogy, the heroes are under seige and Corum goes on a desperate quest within a faerie mound for the Macguffin that will stave off defeat. He returns after an ordeal with the object in hand...only to find that three months have passed in the real world and all of his allies fell shortly after he left. 

It's not great, it's not art, but it's generally a very fun read, best enjoyed a little at a time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Halfjack

Nobody says "Halfjack is my favorite Roger Zelazny story!" It's pretty forgettable and I would never cover it here except for two reasons. 1.) I always get it confused with The Engine at Heartspring's Center, because they both open with a cyborg walking on a beach, and 2.) It's one of the few Zelazny stories that strike me as being tied to a specific era.

I think that Zelazny is among the best of science fiction authors in that his stories are largely timeless. Stories about the future are always informed by the era when they written, so you never have "the future" as much as you have "the future as seen from 1966." Zelazny largely manages to avoid this and set his stories in the timeless now. The oldest of his published works are approaching the half-century mark, and while there are occasionally anachronisms, he's no worse than most authors and better than many. 

In the introduction, Zelazny writes:  One day, I saw a nice, slick, pretty, new magazine called Omni and was overcome by the desire to have a story in it, so I wrote this one and did.

I grew up in the 80s and my dad had a subscription to Omni, so I'd sometimes read it, and Halfjack strikes me as the absolutely archetypal Omni short story. There's the popular science, the human element and the twist at the end, all in the space of a few pages. 

The main character is Jack, a cyborg pilot who usually keeps his cyborg parts covered with a fleshy bodyglove that gives him a human appearance.  His girlfriend not only tolerates his cyborg parts, but she kind of likes them. Jack breaks up with her and returns to his ship, where he undresses and interfaces with the computer.

Blue-and-pink world below him, black sky above, the stars a snapshot snowfall all about, he bade the shuttle pilot goodbye and keyed his airlock. Entering the Morgana, he sighed and set about stowing his gear. His cargo was already in place and the ground computers had transferred course information to the ship's brain. He hung his clothing in a locker and placed bis body glove and hairpiece in compartments.

He hurried forward then and settled into the control web, which adjusted itself about him. A long, dark unit swung down from overhead and dropped into position at his right. It moved slowly, making contact with various points on that half of his body.

They have a conversation, where it seems the ships computer Morgana is a better match for Jack than the human woman had been.

Several hours later, when they lett orbit, he had already switched off a number of his left-side systems. He was merged even more closely with the vessel, absorbing data at a frantic rate. Their expanded perceptions took in the near-ship vicinity and moved out to encompass the extrasolar panorama with greater than human clarity and precision. They reacted almost instantaneously to decisions great and small.

—It is good to be back together again. Jack.

——I'd say.

Morgana held him tightly. Their velocity built.

I don't think it's Zelazny's best work, but it's a quick enjoyable read.

Bonus: Cyborgs on the beach

Okay, Zelazny fans, which is which? Engine or Halfjack?

Story One:

He walked barefoot along the beach. Above-the city several of the brighter stars held for a few final moments against the wash of light from the east. He fingered a stone, then buried it in the direction from which the sun would come. He watched for a long while until it had vanished from sight. Eventually it would begin skipping. 

Story Two:

Upon this day, he walked beside the water, poking with his forked, metallic stick at the things the last night's storm had left: some shiny bit of detritus useful to the weird sisters in their crafts shop, worth a meal there or a dollop of polishing rouge for his smoother half; purple seaweed for a salty chowder he had come to favor; a buckle, a button, a shell; a white chip from the casino.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Our Weekend: A Tale as Old as Time

Had a mighty nice weekend. On Friday, Lily and Jen and Oma and I all went to Nicolosi's for dinner and then to the Country Gate Players to see a performance of Beauty and the Beast.

It was a "Beauty & the Beast Jr." production performed by kids ages 9-18. All of the kids in the production were good, but the actress who played Belle was absolutely phenomenal. The delivery of her lines was flawless, her singing was so good and sounded so much like the movies that I thought she was lip syncing to the soundtrack until she briefly lost her composure and her laugh came over the speakers. Most of the kids were solid, but she was performing on another level.  (Also, Belle was a good three inches taller than Gaston.)

Lily liked it, though not as much we thought she might. She wore her Belle dress and was generally pretty good.At one point she asked who villain of the piece was and we told her that it was Gaston. She thought for a moment and said, "Well, he's a pretty good looking villain." She also observed that Belle had "nice shoes!"

It was a somewhat abbreviated version, with some songs I didn't recognize, probably added from the Broadway version, and constrained by the budget of a local show. (The bit I mentioned above, when Belle laughed is when the Beast brought her into his library and she was marveling "I've never seen so many books!", but it was the same bare stage they'd been using for the rest of the sets.) They had a couple solid effects, such as smoke coming upfrom below stage to hide the costume change of the witch into the enchantress and the Beast into the prince. Very nice. I was glad we could be a part of it.

That was our Friday. On Saturday, we hung out for a bit and did some shopping for the all the birthdays we have coming up, and then I took off to hang out with the boys at Frederick's house. If you're interested in reading about that, then follow this link.

On Sunday, we went to the birthday party for one of Lily's little friends. She was mostly good, but she was pretty cutthroat during Hot Potato. And there's nothing wrong with that itself, but she was the only one playing to win, fairly thrusting the egg they were using at the other kid, while the other four and five-year-olds were just kind of lackadaisically passing it after a short period of reflection. (At one point, I thought she was going to shank somebody) The adults controlling the music saw this and they tried to stop it when she had it, but she kept passing it off. Hot Pototo probably isn't the best game for that age range, because you've got six sad kids and one winner.

Otherwise it was pretty good. She worked hard on the card, and played well with the other kids. She commented that the one dinosaur looked "realistic" and Jen and I die a little inside when we hear words like that and think that she missed the cutoff to start kindergarten by three days.

Of course, she doesn't always use her powers for good. We were cajoling her to eat and she was turning her nose up at breakfast.

Me: It makes us sad when you don't appreciate cooking. What if you worked on a card very hard on a card and you gave it to somebody and-

Lily: (dismissively) -and they didn't like it? Yeah, I'd be fine with that.

The Replacement JLA: Session Two - Three Men and a Little Lady

We had the second session of our DC super heroes campaign on Saturday. (Click here for a recap of the first.)  I was playing Katy "Dawnfire" Kant, a young girl whose experimental therapy took her from an invalid to a mini-Superman, Casey had Blink, our teleporter, and Frederick played Bloodson, the half-demonic son of Etrigan and Morgan La Fey. Dave couldn't make it. Last session he played a character modeled after the Greatest American Hero, (a normal guy given powers by his alien super-suit), but he wasn't entirely satisfied with him, so I made him up a Jedi if he wanted to go with that. The question was rendered irrelevant by his absence, however.

We opened with a little scene focusing on my character. She's still a minor and her legal status is kind of unclear. I thought of her as the ward of Cadmus Labs, the company whose treatment provided her therapy and powers, and one of the NPCs called her an employee. Either way, she has a legal and emotional obligation to the people there. She told her dad that she wanted to go live on the JLA's satellite and fight crime with Batman.

Eric, our GM, handled this in a very novel fashion. Casey played Amanda Waller and Frederick played my dad. Dave was going to be the general at the meeting, but since he wasn't there, Eric played that role, but mostly hung out in the background and let us go at it. (Eric later said that he had something set up for Dave's character, but since  Dave didn't make it, there wasn't any point in playing that out.)

We went back and forth. I was all like "Did you see me on the news?! It was awesome!" and "Daddy, please!" and "It'll be great PR for the lab," to which the general responded, "Have you met our PR man?" "Um, no?" "That's because we don't have one!" Eventually, they relented, and I got permission to go, with the understanding that I should keep an eye on all the superpeople on the satellite.

Also, I got my first bit of fan mail from Bob, the guy we arrested last session. Since he was in prison and kind of a pervert, it was heavily redacted, and the only thing not blacked out was "You look pretty," at the very bottom.

We then flashed forward to orientation with the rest of the JLA, which is mostly composed of characters somewhat below our power level, the Huntress, John Constantine, the new Blue Beetle, Fire, Ice, that kind of hero.

Timothy Hunter was there too, and Katy was thrilled not to be the youngest. He's got a little crush on her. She treats him like a little brother and keeps calling him "Tommy" by mistake.

Somehow the running joke developed that Blink kept teleporting into Huntress's shower. Casey decided that Blink's goal was to hook up with Huntress. I decided that Katy's goal was to be his partner in this, but since she's had so little regular interaction with adults, her plans are like "Compliment her shoes!" or passing a note that reads, "Check one. Do you like Blink? Yes _ No _."

Bloodson set off the sprinklers in his room and he and Blink were antagonizing Batman all night. Batman had disappeared with the rest of the Justice League, and Plastic Man had let it slip last adventure that this wasn't the Batman he knew. (Everybody figured him for Nightwing, and that wound up being correct.) In light of this, every time they talked to him, they made finger quotes when they said "Batman." Somebody suggested he should put the quotes on the Bat on his uniform. Then there were some jokes about shining to "Finger Quote Signal" to summon him, which led way to jokes about the "Blink Signal" which is just a strobe light. (It summons him, but causes seizures in dozens on Japanese schoolchildren.)

I went to my room, where I looked myself up online. "Hey, there are pictures of me on the Internet...but I don't remember doing that with Brainiac. Ewww..."

I also received a package from Superman, a holographic recording saying that he knew who I was and how I got my powers, and that he feels that I'm his responsibility, and that I could reach him by calling "Kal-El." Batman stepped out of the shadows and we spoke briefly. Katy got her powers through the overlay of a Kryptonian energy matrix on her human body, but she probably only knows the very basics, and perhaps not even that. I told "Batman" that I wasn't trying to replace Superman, but just to live up to his legacy and fill in until he can return, kind of like Steel did after Superman was killed by Doomsday.

After abundant silliness, we proceeded to the second part of the adventure. We were monitoring the UN Adddress, where the United Nations was deciding whether to recognize us or not, when we saw that a bunch of supervillains choose that moment to attack. I think it was the H.I.V.E. but I'm not sure. It was one of those evil paramilitary groups that plague comic book worlds, like Cobra or Hydra. We split off into teams, and Dawnfire, Bloodson, and Blink found themselves up against three giant tripod walkers and 20 guys with jetpacks and rayguns.

It was a really fun fight.  I drew a lot of attention from the mooks early on, and it seems impervious toughness isn't worth dick. I either need to buy up her toughness next level or invest in some kind of area attacks, because five guys with laser rifles were hitting me way too hard. Katy took a terrible beating and I rolled very badly on her defensive rolls, but I had designed her to bounce back from that kind of stuff and in that respect she performed admirably. I tried to stick up for the squishier guys by using my interpose power, which lets me take a hit in their place. I did so for Blink when he was on the ground, dropping down in front of him just as he was about to get blasted. I rolled a 3, which was three degrees of failure on the toughness check. The only consolation is that if Blink had taken the hit, he would have been laid out. I got the guy on the next round though, hitting him with a superspeed blow that in my mind looked like this:

Bloodson was blasting and entangling the walkers, but do to some bad rolls, he wasn't as effective as he would have liked. We're going to play with the points he got this session to see how we can tweak his build to minimize the impact of luck. Blink was pretty effective against the walkers as well as the minions, though since we now know how the area effect rules work, he's not the whirlwind of destruction he'd been against them last session.

As we were wrapping up, Blink teleported into the UN, asked "So, are you going to recognize us now?" and then bamfed out again. Cut to, us watching the CNN special report, where Wolf Blitzer was speculating on the identity of the masked teleporter. Footage seemed to show that he was one of the heroes defending the UN, but others thought the terrorist group was demanding recognition. Blink then blinked down to the studio, where he identified himself as a member of the Justice League and then blinked back. "Batman" was observed pulling some Prozac from his utility belt.

I really enjoyed the session. We have a better grip on our characters and on the rules, we've got a couple plot hooks simmering nicely and I'm really looking forward to the next one.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Some quick commentary on the NPR Top 100

Ok, some brief thoughts on the top ten:

1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien:
 I think I would have been very surprised if this had been anything else. I used to listen to WXPN, a college station out of Philly, and after they had their fundraisers, they would have the countdown. Since they broadcast at 88.5, their countdowns were always the top 885 artists/albums/songs, and it was usually pretty meaningless, because a list that big is too large to have any kind of meaning, and you knew the top three was going to be either Beatles/Dylan/Stones or Beatles/Stones/Dylan. But it probably deserves the slot. It's been hugely influential on almost everything in fantasy that came afterwards. If a fantasy series wasn't emulating LotR, then it was deliberately subverting elements of it.

2. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams: This has had a lot of different incarnations, radio plays, novels, TV series. I remember the old Infocom computer game, which I played after I had read the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, but before I had read Hitchhiker's itself. It's also been hugely influential on geek culture, with many of us answering "42" when asked for a random number.

3. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card: I know this was influential on a lot of science fiction fans because it was the first juvenile genre work not to talk down to kids. I only encountered it as an adult, and I think it's pretty decent, but I don'y have the nostalgic connection to it that a lot of fans do. 

4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert: I love Dune. I wrote a post on my top 10 favorite Dune characters at my old blog. I even like the Heretics/Chapterhouse cycle. I like Dune but I'm surprised that other people do. I think it's a very, very good book, but not something that would have broad appeal. It's dry, it's difficult and though it's been consistently ranked as one of the best science fiction novels ever, I don't know that many people who actually like it. I guess they're out there (somebody must be buying those dreadful prequels), but it doesn't seem to have the same following as other SF classics. I think we're starting to see here is people voting on how they want to be perceived, rather than what they actually like.

5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin: I like the first three books, tolerated the fourth and haven't yet read the fifth. One thing I'll say is that Martin advanced the plot in every chapter. There was no filler. They are these huge bricks of books and he still managed to have something happen in every chapter. That's pretty impressive. That said, I think the ranking is somewhat inflated by the new book release and the HBO series.

6. 1984, by George Orwell: Influential, a cultural touchstone, but again, I think we're getting into people voting on the reputation of the book and not their personal opinion of it.

7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury: See comments for 6

8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov: See comments for 7

9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley: See comments for 8

10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman: Probably my favorite work by Gaiman, and that's including the Sandman. The culmination of his work bringing myths to life. I'm not sure it's the 10th best Fantasy book ever written though.

Other commentary. Lord of Light didn't break the top 100, and, on reflection, that's not hugely surprisingly, because it's not as accessible as some of the other works on the list. It'a galling, though, that such stinkers beat out the Amber books. The Wheel of Time at number 12?! Jesus. The Sword of Truth at number 62 instead of a compost heap?! That's a crime, man! The Sword of Shannara over both Elric AND Conan?! 

Heh. I'm reminded of one of the afterwards from an author of one of the stories in Lord of the Fantastic (I forget who, exactly) who notes that all these authors have so many dedicated fans who know nothing about the interests of other fans. So while I'm bemoaning the fact that Lord of Light didn't make the top 100, someone else out there in the internet is no doubt complaining that it was nominated at all.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Results for the NPR's Top-100 Science Fiction & Fantasy Titles

The results are in and the top ten are:

1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
3. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card
4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert
5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin
6. 1984, by George Orwell
7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
The Amber Chronicles were at number 40, and Lord of Light didn't even make the top 100, being beaten out by such luminaries as Piers Anthony with his Xanth series and R.A. Salvatore for the Legend Of Drizzt.

Legion of Super Heroes: Brain Drain

Welcome back to my Legion of Super Heroes reviews

I didn't really enjoy this episode all that much, which is probably why it took me so long to get the review written. It's probably my least favorite of the first season episodes. (Though the second season is so bad that it makes this particular story look like The Great Darkness Saga by way of contrast.)

Brainiac 5 is acting strangely and when questioned about it, he tells his fellow Legionnaires that every ten years Coluans undergo the Alignment, where their memories are uploaded and shared. But since he disconnected himself from the hive mind, he doesn't know what the effects will be. So he's building a containment chamber for himself because he'll be incoherent during the process. 

I like the expression he's making here. Lily insists that Brainy is a girl, and looking at images like this, I can certainly see why.

So the Alignment begins and we get a montage of all his wackiness, and the antics are nicely synchronized with Adam Wylie's voice work. After the Alignment is over, however, Brainy has not stopped being crazy. A little input from COMPUTO (who still has not murdered Triplicate Girl, much to my chagrin) tells them that they need to find some Zuunium to fix him before he deteriorates irreparably. 

Lily and I are reading the Legion comics at bed time, and Lily has softened her position on Triplicate Girl (after the issue where she has a date with Bouncing Boy, which was very cute), and Timber Wolf draws the remainder of her ire. To talk about Timber Wolf for a bit, there are some Legion members that will always be the core of any conception of the team. The three founders, of course, and Brainiac 5 and Chameleon Boy and Superman or an analogue like Mon-El, but everybody is negotiable.  Triplicate Girl and Bouncing Boy make sense. Their powers are really well suited for animation. I don't think Timber Wolf is any more iconic a legionnaire than, say, Element Lad, yet here he is, front and center yet again.

(And to digress for a moment, I think the Legion, with its large cast of characters, would be really well-suited to Suikoden-type video game.)

There are no shortage of funny bits in the episode. My two favorites are  Timber Wolf: "Brainy, how do you feel?" Brainiac 5: "I feel like dancing!" and Brainiac 5 suddenly yelling "I've decided I don't trust machines."Brainy's expression was funny, walking into the wall. "Ow, ow, ow."

"Ow, ow, ow."

Also it was nice to see Saturn Girl and and Lightning Lad working together. They have a very nice dynamic, as you might expect, and they get my other favorite line from the episode, when going to take Brainy through the transmatter gate:

Lightning Lad: "Think of all the delicious Zuunium over there." 
Saturn Girl: "He's not going to eat it. Did you pay attention at all?"

Unfortunately, after that, the episode goes into a bit of the decline. The gate malfunctions and Brainy's head is separated from his body. Appallingly, no one thinks to make a reference to Hamlet while it's bouncing around. Superman and Timber wolf babysit the head while it makes cryptic and zany comments and Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad try to reign in the headless body. They fight off a bunch of thugs and some mining robots, and, oh, since it's under a red sun, Superman doesn't have any powers.

The animators only felt like drawing six legs on the spider robots. They're still cool, though.

Timber Wolf, Hufflepuff to the last, plugs away assiduously on the mission. Superman is getting his unpowered ass kicked until he finds a suit of power armor.  Meh. Power armor is normally pretty cool, but not a good fit for Superman.

Come get some

Brainy decides that being a spider robot is cool, so he just sprouts some legs and becomes one too. Again, the animation was really top notch here. 

Brainy gets cured, and all is right with the world. Later on, Superman's like, "I wonder why I lost my powers," and Brainy's like "Oh, red sun." Superman gets understandably annoyed that Brainy knew this and didn't tell him, but Brainy sticks to his guns, saying these are things Superman will have to learn on his own in their proper time and place.

I'm not sure that I agree with Brainiac's argument, that being in the dark about all these bizarre weaknesses is part of the process of self-discovery, because by the time he figures them out, he's not going to do anything about it. It reminds me of something Bill Bryson wrote about bear attacks once: "Bears very rarely attack humans. But here's the absolutely salient point. Sometimes they do, and once is all it takes."  When he encounters Kryptonite for the first time, is Superman going to say "Whoops, that green rock seems to be sapping my powers. Excuse me, would you? I think I'll just dash on home and put on my lead suit."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bring Your Pet to Work Day Gallery, Part 2

The second part of the Bring Your Pet to Work Day gallery. Again, if you're reading this on Facebook, click on the "View Original Post" link at the bottom to see it directly on the blog, where the formatting is less awful.

Day Eight: Take a Scott Pilgrim Character to Work Day

I know just how you feel, Romona.

Day Nine: Take a different Scott Pilgrim Character to Work Day

Scott Pilgrim: Happier than anyone at this shithole has a right to be

Day Ten: Bring a Family of Bunnies to Work Day

Lily says that the biggest one is the daddy, but I have mixed feelings about that, because it's also the one in the dress.

Day Eleven: Bring a Tiger You Won out of the Crane Machine to Work Day

"So, Peter, what's happening? Aahh, now, are you going to go ahead and have those TPS reports for us this afternoon?"

Day Twelve: Bring Your Turtles into Work Day
As the saying goes, it's turtles all the way down

Day Thirteen: Bring Your Pup to Work Day (Armadillos only)

Day Fourteen: Bring Your Nursery Rhyme Character to Work Day

After we wrapped up the shoot, we celebrated by sitting on top of the tallest wall we could find.

Day Fifteen: Bring your Cephalopod and his Collection of Magic Cards to Work Day

Day Sixteen: Bring Your Rainbow Emo Pony into Work Day

And that's where we are. Turn in next month for a new collection of pics.

Bring Your Pet to Work Day Gallery, Part 1

Lily really enjoyed being a part of Bring Your Daughter to Work Day earlier in the year, and she asked when it was coming up next. I told her that it wouldn't be for quite a while, but that I could bring in a stuffed animal and take a picture of it for her.

I'm never sure if she'll go for these things or not until she actually responds, because she's at the age where her temperament is amazingly changeable. She latched on to this one, though, and there have been times I've been able to rouse her from her early morning torpor with a request to pick out that day's animal. 

So, today, I'm presenting a gallery of this month's stuffed animal guests at my desk. We didn't do it every day, so there are fewer than twenty images. For the friends and family reading this on the Facebook feed, click on the "View Original Post" Link at the bottom of the post, because Facebook always screws up the formatting and it's going to look better at the blog itself. 

Without further ado:

Day One: Bring Your Cow to Work Day

Celebrated on the second Wednesday in July. Easter Orthodox Bring Your Cow to Work Day is held in August, however.

Day Two: Bring Your Clownfish and Killer Whale to Work Day

This is celebrated 2 weeks earlier in Canada to honor the last snow fall of the season.

Day Three: Bring Your Donkey to Work Day

As every child knows, this is celebrated the first Friday after Bastille Day

Day Four: Bring One of Strawberry Shortcake's Friends into Work Day

Day Five: Bring a Robot Riding a Killer Whale into Work Day

As the kiddies say on the internets, your argument is invalid

Day Six: Bring Your Dragonfly to Work Day

I misplaced the little plastic dragonfly Lily gave me this morning before I left for work. I was hoping Froggy here could attract a dragonfly before the day was through. As you can see, he's going a-courtin'.

Day Seven: Bring Your Poodle to Work Day

Noodle the Poodle

More soon! 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Shadow Knight

Welcome back to my Roger Zelazny book reviews! In my review of the core book for the ADRPG, I commented that I like the supplement, which deals mostly with the second series, more in some ways than the original. Zach replied in the comments that's only because I love Merlin so much.

And he was of course making a joke there. I think I keep it pretty well hidden, but astute readers here may have picked up some subtle hints that Merlin is not my favorite character.

I happen to like the cover for Shadow Knight. It's certainly better than the one for the ADRPG, which makes the plagarized cover for Trumps of Doom look like a masterpiece of composition.  It's also got a picture of the serpent of Chaos on the rear cover, the image, I would imagine that is on the back of the Chaos trumps. It's a fine looking book with a decent index. They layout is a bit sprawling, but that's something I happen to like in game books and I think it works well with Wujcik's style. There's nothing I enjoy more than opening my RPGs to a random page and coming across something that seems new to me.

I think the biggest difference between the two books is one of tone. The first book depicted godlike Elder Amberites and advocated an adversarial tone both between players and, to a lesser extent, between GM and players. The former, I think, was a reflection of its era. 90s RPGs were full of non-player characters whose power level the PCs could never approach. I also had a brief exchange with Erick Wujcik himself on a message board that we both frequented, where he said that this was in order to help some Amber GMs who needed a little help elevating the Elders.  Here's a link to the post if you want to read his own words on the subject. 

The first book had some influence from the second series, such as the Logrus and the rules for sorcery, which were clearly influenced by the Merlin books. I forget which Amberzine had an account by one of Wujcik's former players on his techniques as a GM, and it featured an exchange where his character was in trouble, and he contacted his talking bird via Trump for a quick exit. The bird said that he probably wouldn't want to come through, but the player was like "Just bring me through, damnit!" The bird complied and our bossy Amberite wound up on the narrow ledge where the bird had been perching.

I'm torn. There's a fine line between giving the players enough rope to hang themselves, which is generally fun for everybody and the "you-didn't-say-you-were-putting-on-pants-when-you-went-outside-so-you-didn't" gotcha style of GMing, which isn't, and this strikes me as closer to the latter. (Though it's worth noting that this wasn't the impression I got from the author of the account, who seemed amused by the whole thing.)

Even if my style of running an Amber game is different from how Wujcik's had been, that's fine. The tent is big enough for all of us, and as no less an authority than great-souled Sam reminds us, "As you know, the personal strengths and weaknesses of a leader are no true indication of the merits of his cause."

The NPCs in Shadow Knight are less powerful than than the children of Oberon in the core book, and I figure that's by design, either to serve as models on how to build a PC or to give characters peers of similar power levels.  

As in the core book, there are several different possibilities for each character. The write up for Flora includes "Faithful Servant of the Crown", "Proprietor of Shadow Earth" and "Power in Waiting". 

I think I like this book because none of the conceptions of Merlin are particularly flattering. Wujcik gives us Merlin as "Man-child of the Courts", "Knave of Chaos", and "Power Monger". Stupid Merlin! 

Julia Barnes has an writeup, which surprised me, and she has various possibilities, just like the other characters. Maybe she's a human, maybe she's a lost princess of Amber and maybe she got her sorcerous abilities from a blood transfusion from Merlin. I like this one because it has a sidebar titled "Was Merlin stupid to donate blood?"

Jurt's whole entry is great. I particularly like the introduction, which does a great job of humanizing him.

"Well, he's nasty. But he's kind of clumsy, too. At least he's screwed up whenever we've fought and left a piece of himself behind."

- Merlin, in Sign of Chaos

Not fair, Merlin, not fair at all.

Yes, Jurt is clumsy. He stumbles over his words, and other things. He's also young.

Besides, Merlin, what about Dara? If she's so awful, so difficult, so exasperating for you, the golden boy, the smart one in the family, what must she be like for Jurt?

Yeah, Jurt is brash, and he makes a lot of mistakes. Picking fights he can't handle isn't too bright.

On the other hand, Jurt says what he thinks. A not too tactful thing to do, especially when Jurt admits that he's untrustworthy, and that he wouldn't get along with a duplicate of himself.

Merlin, if Jurt admits he wouldn't get along with his own Ghost, why are you so surprised that he can't get along with you?

First you don't take Jurt seriously. You talk to him as if he were a naughty little kid, and as if you were ready to offer a spanking. Not the brightest way to deal with the baby of the family.

Second, remember when the Ghost of Jurt told you how he started practicing when he heard you were running in college? Jurt didn't want to kill you, Merlin, he just wanted to beat you.

So, Merlin, lighten up. Plenty of brothers fight. Usually they get over it.

I know it's blasphemy, but I think Wujcik put more thought into Jurt than Zelazny did. He was just this cardboard adversary for Merlin to wallop in the books, but he's almost sympathetic here.

There are some more character outlines, some updates to the Elders from the first book, and collection of essays and advice, and also a bunch of speculation about Undershadow and Wonderland and the other locations from the Merlin books. I like the whole book, but I think this is my favorite part. "Hey," Wujcik seems to say, "Undershadow could be this or this or this, so grab the one that works for you and have fun!"

That's why I like it. I'm a fan of what Zelazny created in Amber, and so was Wujcik, and the enthusiasm of a man working with what he loves really shows through. Fans take the series and we run with it, and when we find mistakes, we don't crow about them, but instead we chew them over and try to figure out how they're not really mistakes. It's all part of the fun of being a fan! 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

NPR's Poll of Top-100 Science Fiction & Fantasy Titles

This seems to be a day for short posts. A couple weeks ago, Chris DeVito mentioned that NPR was collecting nominations for the top 100 SF/Fantasy books. They've tabulated the results and now they've opened the list of top 100 books for voting. The link to the voting is here.

The nominations are pretty much in line with what I'd expect, with all the classics of the genre represented. I didn't see any conspicuous omissions, but I was surprised by how many newer books were on there, though that just might be me becoming curmudgeonly and out of touch with the community as I get older. Zelazny has two nominations, one for Lord of Light and another for the Amber series as a whole. I don't imagine that he'll do well, simply because he's been gone for so long and there aren't that many active communities to get out the vote. Ah, well. As Glorian of Knowledge said when he was up for the Joseph Campbell Award for Best Semi-Actual Persona, "It's an honor just to be nominated."

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game

This review is going to be a little different than most. I'm looking at the Amber Diceless RPG, which, like the Black Road War, was inspired by, but not written by Roger Zelazny.

I've been a gamer (a term I prefer to role-player, even if it has been co-opted by the gambling industry) for a long time. I've mentioned the hobby from to time, and it's probably apparent in some of my writing here, even in the posts that don't mention it specifically. I started at about ten years old. That was back in the mid-80s, when you could still find kids playing Dungeons & Dragons during lunch in public schools. So I already had something of the gamer's perspective when I found the Amber novels.

I've touched on the RPG previously. My first exposure to the game was an ad for the Amber Diceless Role-playing game (ADRPG) in a friend's issue of Dragon magazine in about 1992 or 1993. My check was in the mail as soon as I got home, and I had the book in my hands literally a week later, which was an astonishing turnaround. Phage Press couldn't have even waited for my check to clear before they sent it out.

Palladium RPG had an magazine called Gateways, and Erick Wujcik wrote an essay about role-playing without randomizers. He talked about the character which brought him to the concept, a thief he rolled up with "an appalling shortage of hit points". To keep his character alive, he would avoid rolling the dice whenever possible, and when faced with combat, he running, bartering, even surrendering. I think he said that he rolled the dice about twelve times on his way to level six. This got him thinking that dice were not really as essential an element as everyone held them to be.

He segued into an account of his personal Amber campaign and mentioned that Bleys was a prominent NPC with the option to contact one of two PCs via Trump. Wujcik said the only time that he rolled the dice in the entire campaign was then, to pick which player character Bleys would contact, and that he regretted it and if he had to do it again, he would put himself in Bleys's shoes and try to figure out what he would do.

That was a revelation for me. Not only that somebody was out there playing an Amber game, but the concept really crawling into a character's head and making a decision like that. I can't overstate the significance. I'd been a gamer for a couple years at that point, but this changed not only how I played RPGs, but how I approached my life. It sent me in a new direction of logically following evidence to its conclusion and shaped the person I became as an adult. (I had the chance to correspond with Wujcik before he passed away and I mentioned this to him, and he said that I'm not the first person to tell him a story along those lines.)

The game itself is pretty novel. Each player has a pool of 100 points to buy powers and abilities. Powers are things like Pattern Imprint, Trump Artistry, sorcery, that kind of thing. The four abilities are Psyche, Strength, Warfare and Endurance, which should be pretty self-explanatory. You buy the powers directly, but for the attributes, you bid against your fellow players in Amber's famous attribute auction. Whichever character has the highest rank in an ability is considered the best of his or her generation, even if the difference in points is small. (For instance if I get the highest rank in warfare by bidding 51 points, I'm leaps and bounds better than Chris's character who bought second place with 50 points)

It's funny. I would have only be a fan of Zelazny's work for two or three years at most, by that point, but for me, the period before I found the RPG remains a distinctive era in my mind. One thing I really liked about the Amber RPG is Erick Wujcik's almost pathological belief that there was more going on than what Zelazny showed us. I think I've internalized that to an extent, because I tend to view at the novels through the lens of game. Not so much in the terms of thinking "Benedict has a warfare score of 185", but in the sense that I'm critical of the somewhat facile explanations Corwin gives of his siblings' motivations.

For instance the RPG gives three or four different possible explanations for each Amberite. Maybe Gerard really was the simple, honest man he seemed. Or maybe he was the keeper of Amber's greatest secrets, a theory Wujcik supports with the fact that Oberon kept Gerard behind in Amber when he dispatched everyone else to deal with Courts of Chaos. I get a lot of enjoyment considering these different possibilities as I reread the Chronicles. (As an aside, I think I'd really enjoy GoA from Benedict's Point of View. I can imagine his staccato narration, with the undercurrent of "What's Corwin really up to?" and "Why can't my siblings be happy with what they've got?")

I don't think you need to reach far outside the text to reconcile the other Amberites having personalities as complex as Corwin's with his superficial understanding of them. He's been away a long time, and they are all powerful and secretive. In addition, I think there is a certain element of narcissism in the royal family. Llewella may have as rich an inner life as Corwin, but he just doesn't care about it. (Nor is it really relevant to his story.)

It's not without its flaws. Most of the criticism I've seen directed against it is the much higher power level depicted here as opposed to the Chronicles. Amberites can control shadow dwellers through force of will alone, all the children of Oberon are Machiavellian masterminds and Benedict is capable of parrying invisible attackers trivially. (I kind of touched on that in this post. If I'd known at the time that I'd cover the RPG in its own post, I would have saved those observations for this one.)

I'm inclined to be forgiving of these flaws, for the reason that players in RPGs tend to be much more ruthless and pragmatic than characters in books (even characters in Amber books!) and if you didn't ramp up the existing characters, they'd just be grist for the PCs.

The game is playable with just the core book. One supplement, Shadow Knight, was released. It covered the Merlin Chronicles, and I like it more than the main book in some ways. It will probably get its own review down the line. Also of interest were the Amberzines, limited run fanzines which had all sorts of campaign logs, short stories, comics, personal ads from Amberites and more. Those were a lot of fun too. I was by far the biggest fan of Zelazny in my little circle of geeks and in the dark pre-Internet days, I think Amberzines were the best way for fans of the game to share their bubbling enthusiasm with the wider world.

ADRPG is still going strong, with the next Ambercon coming up in April of 2012. I've never been to one, but I think I'd like to make the pilgrimage one of these days.

Superman Rules/Batman Poops: Superman fills in for Batman

Knightfall is probably my favorite episode of the Superman Animated Series of the late 90s. There were a couple episodes I really enjoyed, but none more so than Knight Time. I watched it with Lily, who enjoyed it, but since we have constantly arguments over whether Superman "rules" or "poops". I mentioned this to a friend.

Me: Lily and I watched the episode of Superman where he fills in for Batman.
Friend: Superman poops. He could never fill in for Batman.
Me: Batman poops. He poops so much, his utility belt is full of depends.
Friend: That's really pretty gross.

We open with Superman subduing one of Batman's villains, then rescuing a feckless Robin. Robin tells him that Gotham has fallen apart without somebody to dress up like Dracula and beat the mentally ill populace unconscious. Superman decides to step in, reasoning, hey, Batman does it. How hard can it be?

When meeting with the Commissioner, Superman mimics Batman's voice. When Robin asks him how he did it, he answers in Batman's voice, "Precise muscle control." Pause. (In Robin's voice)  "Plus, I have a pretty good ear.

Robin responds in what he no doubt imagines to be a badass tone, "Don't do that again."

Or what, Robin? What exactly would you do to Superman if he kept talking in your voice? Kick him with your elf shoes?

They encounter some of Batman's most fearsome foes, including a man in a funny hat and a different man in a funny hat.

A Hero is defined by his villains

Truly, Batman is the greatest hero of all.

They track down the kidnapped Bruce Wayne, who was brainwashed by Brainiac's nanites into launching a spaceship from Wayne Aerospace. Superman-as-Batman throws some bat-themed rope around Brainiac's wrists but Brainiac snaps the rope and turns his death rays on his assailant.

What follows is my very favorite moment for the entire three-season run of the show. Brainiac keeps blasting him until he's a curled up on the floor, the costume burned off entirely.

Then Superman rises out of the flames.

The camera zooms in on Brainiac, who remarks in his usual deadpan monotone: "Kal-El. This development was highly improbable." And then Superman beat the shit out of him. It was glorious.

In conclusion, Superman Rules and Batman Poops.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Happy Birthday!

Jen's birthday is this Tuesday, but since she was away this past Friday, Lily and I decided to throw her a surprise party.

I worked on Friday and then came home. Our original plan had been to eat junk food and watch movies all night with Lily (something she ran out and told to mommy as soon as we had it planned, much to my chagrin). Unfortunately, Lily was at the lake all day with her Nana and was out for the night by the time she got home.

She woke up pretty early on Saturday and we watched some cartoons and made a cake. We have a couple different shapes of pans, so I asked Lily which shape cake she wanted to make. "Do you want a square, a rectangle or circle-shaped cake?" She looks at me and smiles mischievously and says "A triangle!" like a smartass.

That wasn't hard to do, though. I was already planning on cutting the cake in half because Lily had said she wanted fruit filling, so I just baked it in the square pan and cut it diagonally. I let it cool, spread the strawberry jelly on top of the one triangle and then put the other one on top of it.

I let her mix up the icing too. I picked up some white icing and split it into four containers and let her mix in the food coloring. I did the actual icing of the cake myself, though she told me where to put each color.

Why, yes, a four year old was supervising this project. Why do you ask?

We waited for Jen to get home, then lit the candles when we saw her pulling in. Lily whispered "Daddy! Quick! Hide!" in that amazingly earnest way kids have. So Jen enters, we hop out and yell "Surprise!" and fun is had by all.

Baby Bear was a guest and not a gift.

I got Jen two books on taking digitial pictures of nature scenes. (These two books, if you care: Digital Wildlife Photography and 100 Ways to take better Nature & Wildlife Photographs) Lily got her a stuffed raccoon that makes a magical sound when you squeeze it and some chocolate. She also made a card all by herself.

Since we started celebrating Jen's birthday three days before the actual event, she asked us if it was going to be like Hanukkah, and we'd be celebrating all week. Sounds good to me. Happy birthday, sweet, and many more!