Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dave Arneson, R.I.P.

Dave Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, died earlier this month at the age of 61.  A lot of things I said when Gary Gygax died are fitting here as well.

I know far more about Dungeons and Dragons than is reasonable for someone who has never actually played it, save through computer game adaptations like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. Tabletop roleplaying games aren’t my thing; I’m too shy and too uncomfortable in groups for it. (Yes, that’s right: I’m too nerdy to play Dungeons and Dragons. God have mercy on me.) As far as I can recall, my first exposure to role-playing games was in the mid to late 80’s, when I would hang out with some older kids on my block who played it.

Arneson’s legacy first seriously touched my life in 1989 or 1990, though I wouldn’t realize it until years later. I was a video game fan, and Nintendo Power magazine was advertising a promotion in which every subscription came with a free copy of a game called Dragon Warrior. (This was when they still insisted on calling games “GamePaks,” which stuck me as very silly even at the age of nine.) I’m not sure how it made financial sense to give away a $40 game to sell $15 magazine subscriptions, but apparently it did. I didn’t know what Dragon Warrior was, but my greedy, calculating young heart couldn’t say no to a deal like that. I mailed in my $15, and a few weeks later the game and my first issue of the magazine arrived.

I had never played anything like it before. Fighting enemies was turn-based. Everything seemed to revolve around numbers- character stats, enemy stats, weapon and armor attributes, calculating what to spend your scarce money on to give you a better chance of surviving. My friends were alternately baffled and bored to tears by it.

It was the greatest game I had ever played.

I had (and have) problems with fine motor control. I liked video games, but I was all but hopeless at most of them. Suddenly, there was a game that did not require reflexes and dexterity I didn’t have, and actually favored my preference for strategy and careful planning. A short while later, I discovered the first Final Fantasy for the NES as well, and I realized I had found my gaming niche. RPGs and strategy games have been my video games of choice ever since.

That first Dragon Warrior seems a bit creaky now, of course. The combat was very simplistic, and the story was scarcely more involved than Super Mario Brothers. But when I was a little kid, it was magic. That game opened up whole imaginative worlds for me, and did so in a time when the real world was not at all a good place.

Dragon Warrior was largely based on previous computer role-playing games like Wizardry and Ultima, which were based on still older games, which were based on the original tabletop Dungeons and Dragons. So, there’s a direct line of descent from Dave Arneson to many of my favorite games today, and I owe him a great deal. Rest in peace.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

But where will I get my Kindred: The Embraced reruns now?

This should have been posted a while ago, but my usual sloth, combined with a savage and unprovoked squirrel attack on my telephone cables, has delayed me in getting it online.  Imagine you’re reading this three weeks ago and it’ll probably be more interesting.

As most people know by now, the Sci Fi Channel has now changed its name to the “SyFy Channel.” There’s really nothing unkind I can say about the name “SyFy” itself that would be more damning than just reproducing it accurately.  It’s not unknown for a TV station to radically change its identity while trying to keep some vestige of the name, as when TNN changed from the country music-focused “The Nashville Network” to the action/testosterone-themed “The National Network.”  (Which then became Spike, which is both less generic and more appropriately phallic and bellicose-sounding.)  Thus, I’m not surprised that they went with a name that maintains a tie to the old one, though you’d think with the amount of money TV networks spend on consulting firms and focus groups they could have come up with something that didn’t sound like a government agency from a David Weber novel.

I don’t even know what their new slogan, “Imagine Greater,” is supposed to mean.  It sounds like something that Babelfish has translated from English to Japanese and back again two or three times.

I often get annoyed at this sort of attempt to hide from the Nerd Cooties stigma, but this seems entirely appropriate to me, given how much of the channel seems to be devoted to monster movies, schlock horror, pro wrestling, and reality shows with washed up quasi-celebrities who didn’t quite have the Q factor to hang out with Corey Feldman and Chyna on The Surreal Life.  Really, ditching the “Sci Fi” is just a simple acknowledgment of reality.  (In that same spirit of accuracy, perhaps “SciFi Channel Original Movie” could be changed to “Not Even Good Enough for Direct-to-Video Theatre.")  So, no big loss.

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Necropath by Eric Brown

necropathIn the short time since its creation, Solaris Books has really impressed me, both with their authors and with their Solaris Book of New Science Fiction anthology series.  It was through the latter that I first became aware of English science fiction author Eric Brown. Necropath is the first book in a planned three-books series, to be followed by Xenopath and Cosmopath.  However, it is a self-contained story in itself.

Bengal Station is a huge spaceport in the sea between India and Burma, the entry point to Earth for the faster-than-light ships linking Earth to her colonies, and to alien civilizations beyond.  Its tremendous volume is home to millions of people, ranging from the richest to the poorest.  Jeff Vaughan is a telepath employed at the station, using his powers to help inspect incoming ships.  He is a tormented man, plagued by his memories of the past, dependent on drugs to help him shut out the endless roar of other people’s thoughts, and utterly without hope.

Strange events are taking place at Bengel Station.  Mysterious shipments are arriving from offworld, shipments Vaughn’s mind-shielded boss has forbidden him to inspect.  A series of men involved in space exploration in their younger days are mysteriously murdered.  A bizarre cult with origins beyond Earth is growing on the station, offering a mind-altering “communion” and promising to make all people one with their God.

Vaughn’s search for the truth behind these events takes him through the depths of Bengal Station, and will eventually lead him from Earth to one of humanity’s new settlements among the stars.  He faces corruption and betrayal among his colleagues, a mysterious figure hell-bent on hunting him down and killing him, and his own fear and despair accumulated from a past spent exposed to things no one should see.  Finally, he will face the force behind the disturbing events on Bengal Station- something far more horrible than a mere criminal conspiracy.

I liked Necropath quite a bit.  The central mystery develops well and becomes increasingly eerie as it progresses.  Jeff Vaughn is an interesting protagonist, and Brown does a nice job of putting a different spin on the much-used idea of a hero with a grim past.  Bengal Station itself is a great environment for a story, and its close juxtaposition of astonishing futuristic technology and desperate Third World poverty is striking.

While Necropath is largely a thriller/mystery story, it has a strong element of horror, and had a number of elements that made me think of H.P. Lovecraft- bizarre and cruelly uncaring intelligences, communities that conceal horrifying secrets, local people with stories of incomprehensible horrors, and knowledge so disturbing that brushing up against it is psychologically damaging.  Parts of the book are quite creepy, and the buildup to Vaughn’s discovery of the truth is effectively chilling.  I liked the way the horror, mystery, and science fiction elements of the book mesh.  The horrific elements are not merely grafted onto a science fiction base- rather, they are directly integrated with the science fiction and would not be possible outside that context.

I liked the book’s use of the idea of telepathy- some people have a natural affinity for it, but artificial augmentation is necessary to make the potential useful.  Especially intriguing- and feeding nicely into what I said about the horror element- is the idea of using telepathy on the recently dead, searching through a person’s thoughts for information as their nervous system sputters out.  This is portrayed as suitably disturbing, both to the reader and to the unfortunate telepath who has to feel the disintegration of another person’s self in the most intimate way possible.

I would recommend Necropath for any science fiction fan who enjoys elements of mystery or horror in their stories, and I look forward to Xenopath.  Telepathy doesn’t seem to appear in science fiction nearly as much as it used to, and I enjoyed Brown’s take on this venerable trope.

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