Wayward Tales of the Ekumen

A good chunk of Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction takes place in the Hainish setting – a future history wherein it is revealed that an extremely long time ago humanity originated on the planet of Hain and colonised much of the galaxy, including Earth, before a major disaster caused the worlds of the Hainish diaspora to lose contact with each other. The stories of the era relate to the slow, agonising process of the human family rediscovering its true, astonishing diversity, first in the era of the League of All Worlds and then, after a crisis which sees Earth conquered and the League dispersed for a while, a successor organisation known as the Ekumen.

Le Guin would explore this universe through a range of novels and short stories. The first Hainish short story – Semley’s Necklace, AKA The Dowry of Angyar – would be incorporated into Rocannon’s World, the first of the early Hainish novels. Another set of them – the tales of the twin worlds Werel and Yeowe and the bitter history between them – would form a story-cycle collected in the book Four Ways To Forgiveness and then, when Le Guin wrote an additional tale in the cycle, eventually reincorporated into that book in its republication as Five Ways To Forgiveness. The Word For World Is Forest is a long enough novella that whilst it was originally published in a story anthology (Again, Dangerous Visions) it got a standalone release later and is generally regarded as a short novel.

Other short stories of the setting, however, were not so easily absorbed into one book or another. In English-speaking markets, you would get all of them by picking up the anthologies The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, and The Birthday of the World. Alternatively, the Library of America’s two-volume hardcover release of the entire Hainish series, compiled with Le Guin’s blessing, brings together all of the novels and stories in one collection, along with interesting alternate texts, essays, and other bits and pieces. For this article, I’m going to go on a quick tour of the Hainish cosmos in order to take in the sights which you won’t see if you just stuck to the novels. (Counting Five Ways To Forgiveness as a novel comprising an episodic story-cycle, in much the same way Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus is seen as a novel comprised of three novellas. Come to think of it, perhaps that was Le Guin’s inspiration, since she’s on the record as admiring Fifth Head.)

The earliest of the wayward tales is Winter’s King, a companion piece to The Left Hand of Darkness, and like the people of Gethen in that world the story expresses itself in two distinct ways; the original 1969 publication of the story used “he” pronouns for characters hailing from Gethen, and then in a later revision Le Guin flipped the pronouns to “she”. Since the “she” version was published in Le Guin’s seminal 1975 short story anthology The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, it is this version which is most commonly available, with the 1969 rendition having fallen out of favour, though the Library of America compilation presents both. For a fun experiment, if you have the two versions to hand you can flip between them and see if you find the scenes land differently when different pronouns are used.

Continue reading “Wayward Tales of the Ekumen”

A Head For Numbers…

In the grim darkness of the far future, the planet of Potence is an agri-world, its population worked to the bone to pay the demanded tithe of food to the Imperium. Rudgard Howe is the youngest son of Chief Enforcer Howe, the Howe lineage having provided the world with its Chief Enforcers for generations. The current Chief Enforcer Howe is aging, his rejuvenation treatments having finally started to not take, and will die in a few years: when that happens, Rudgard and his brothers will find themselves in a fratricidal struggle for the office.

Today, however, is not that day. Today is Rudgard’s first day reporting for duty as an Enforcer – and his father decides that the best form of on-the-job training he can get is to accompany the seasoned Enforcer Terrini on a judgement tour. Far-flung agricultural communities which are too small to have their own courts instead rely on regular visits from the Enforcers to pass down legal judgements on matters too important to leave to the overseers who brutally keep the indentured serfs in line; a good judgement tour will let Rudgard settle into the job without having to watch his back for his brothers, will give the experienced Terrini a chance to pass on some wisdom, and will allow Rudgard a chance to do enough executions that by the end of the tour he won’t flinch. The lead overseer of a settlement is given the title of Bookkeeper because it is they who must maintain the records and ensure that the tithe is met: the Enforcers assist this by putting the fear of the God-Emperor into the serfs through ruthless violence.

All goes well until Rudgard and Terrini are diverted to a truly isolated settlement – the work camp of Thorsarbour. It’s bad enough that Thorsarbour has the snivelling, ineffectual Capo as its Bookkeeeper. It’s worse still that Unworthy, a loudmouth self-appointed priest, has been rabble-rousing among the inhabitants of the village, encouraging them to follow his particularly sanguinary form of worship, or that one of the girls seems to have heretical mind powers. But the major problem is the murders – slayings marked out by the appearance of scarecrows placed near the bodies…

Continue reading “A Head For Numbers…”

Satanic Fluid and Eldritch Real Estate

If you had to nominate someone to sit in the same niche in Spanish genre cinema that Ed Wood occupies in the American pantheon, Juan Piquer Simón might be worth considering. He got his big break with a 1976 adaptation of Journey To the Centre of the Earth, but subsequent to this his career spiralled into a farrago of utter trash. His 1979 Supersonic Man is one of the worst of the wave of Superman imitators which got unleashed in the wake of the first Christopher Reeve movie, his E.T. ripoff Los Nuevos Extraterrestres was, under the title Pod People, had the dubious honour of being in one of the funniest ever Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes (it’s the one with the greatest musical routine ever captured on screen), and his most high-profile project was probably Slugs, an adaptation of a Shaun Hutson novel, which bombed.

So, obviously, genre cinema addicts Vinegar Syndrome have been happy to give his work the sort of careful Blu-Ray restoration that they absolutely don’t deserve. For this article, I’ll take a look at two of their releases. Both of them find Simón tackling some fairly similar motifs – spooky goings-on in creepy houses blighted by occult horror – but one’s from close to the start of his career, and one is from the tail-end of it.

Satan’s Blood

Electronics engineer Andrew (José María Guillén) and nurse Anna (Mariana Kerr) are a young married couple hoping to have their first child. (Anna is currently four months pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage in her previous pregnancy so there’s obviously some worry there.) One day, when they are out for a weekend drive with their dog Blackie, they encounter Bruno (Ángel Aranda) and Mary (Sandra Alberti). Bruno insists that he and Andrew went to college together – and even has some photographic evidence which superficially seems to back it up – and the two couples decamp to Bruno and Mary’s massive villa out in the wilderness to hang out, as you do with people you haven’t spoken to since college all the time. Anyway, turns out Bruno and Mary are actually Satanists and they’re luring Andrew and Anna in for nefarious ritual purposes, and Blackie the doggo dies first; who would have guessed?

Continue reading “Satanic Fluid and Eldritch Real Estate”

PC Pick-and-Mix 4: Dark Fumbles, Joyful Drifts, and Unreal Adventure

Time for another instalment in this occasional series where I reviewed PC games I thought interesting enough to talk about, but didn’t feel inspired to do a full article covering. This time around, an endearingly spooky point-and-click adventure, an endearingly cute RPG, and a rather aged first-person shooter.

The Darkside Detective: A Fumble In the Dark

Released in April 2021, this is a Kickstarter-funded sequel to The Darkside Detective, and offers more of the same: quip-heavy dialogue, light-hearted and silly comedy-horror shenanigans, and classic-style point-and-click adventure gameplay with a big dose of self-awareness. When I got around to playing this, the main six cases in this “season” had dropped but various bonus cases (including stretch goals from the Kickstarter) had not yet slipped out. This is a shorter season than the nine cases in the original run, but to counterbalance this each of the cases seems fairly deep and involved, since there’s no brief introductory case in the first game.

For the span of this game, the Darkside Division has been disbanded (it’s reinstated by the end of the game), which means you don’t have so much of the interactions with the rest of the police department which spiced up the previous game. To be honest, by the end of this game the concept was starting to wear a bit thin on me, so perhaps the fact that the Kickstarter didn’t fund tons and tons of additional cases is all to the good. Still, the game’s a nice light thing to pass the time with, and sells at a fair price for the amount of entertainment you’ll get out of it.

Continue reading “PC Pick-and-Mix 4: Dark Fumbles, Joyful Drifts, and Unreal Adventure”

The Ornate Brevity of Lord Dunsany

Fantasy literature often has a fascination with kings and nobles, but for Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett aristocracy was not the stuff of fantastic imagination or newspaper gossip – for in his capacity as the 18th Baron of Dunsany, he was raised in an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family of significant wealth and great history. Dunsany would occupy himself in a range of interests, and in many respects was the classic toff – on one day he might be out hunting and shooting, on another working with the RSPCA and speaking out against practices like the docking of dogs’ tales. He was a significant figure in the chess world, and a pistol-shooting champion. He served in the Second Boer War, was posted in Derry during World War I (during which he got shot in the head during the Easter Rising), was court martialed during the Irish War of Independence (due to his massive weapons stash at Dunsany Castle breaking wartime regulations), and volunteered in the Home Guard during World War II and provided assistance in Shoreham, which had been badly hammered during the Battle of Britain.

Dunsany is most famous these days, however, as a writer. Over his lifetime he would produce poetry, prose, and plays, with some success in all formats. A range of his plays had successful theatre runs, though others, designed as chamber plays or radio scripts, included fantastic events which it would have been difficult or impossible to perform live onstage at the time. His poetry has become rather overlooked, but was very popular in its time, to the point where F. Scott Fitzgerald had characters quote it; The Times printed his poem A Dirge of Victory on Armistice Day, which despite its propagandistic tone (Dunsany ended his war service writing propaganda material) slips in a rueful and weary meditation on the lives lost in the war.

However, it’s not his poetry or plays that’s remembered today, but his contributions to fantasy literature in short stories and in novels. Even then, this writing took various different forms. He started out in short stories – his first collection was published through a vanity press at his own expense, but ended up being successful enough that he never needed to resort to that to get his work out again – and he regularly turned out new short stories from his 1905 debut to the start of World War I. The War naturally slowed down his output, as well as distracting him from the fantasy work he usually focused on in as he was called on to write War Office propaganda, and come the 1920s he shifted focus from short stories to novels, and his most celebrated fantasy novels all come from that decade.

From that point on his short story and fantasy writing would very much be dominated by the Jorkens series. This revolved around the central character of Joseph Jorkens – traveller, raconteur, and lover of fine whiskeys – as he sits about in his London club, regaling the fellow members with tall tales of his adventures in return for drinks. These are basically an update of the Baron Munchausen concept updated for the then-modern day; though commercially quite popular, they have not exactly been widely celebrated since.

No, in terms of Dunsany’s short fiction it’s his early work which remains distinctive – stories in which he showed great originality in terms of riffing on the themes, motifs, and narrative forms of classic myth and legend (he was very well-versed in Irish myth) whilst at the same time applying them to entirely new fantastic realms and places. One of the most interesting aspects of Dunsany’s short story style is his tendency to go fairly ornate in terms of his prose style, but keep the word count of the stories fairly tight. An early collection of his was Fifty-One Tales, which crammed that number of stories into a bit over 100 pages: we are talking Napalm Death levels of brevity here.

Continue reading “The Ornate Brevity of Lord Dunsany”

Gene Wolfe Faces the Death of the Author

Gene Wolfe’s death in 2019, a few weeks before what would have been his 88th birthday, was in some respects the opposite of a surprise. He was, after all, on the high side of his 80s. He hadn’t published a novel since 2015, an unusually long break in what had previously been a fairly steady career, despite alluding to writing a new book in a late 2015 interview – but making sure to give the caveat that he might not finish it.

However, as lovers of literary SF and fantasy mourned the loss of Wolfe, the great man’s good buddy Neil Gaiman brought glad tidings: Wolfe had finished his final novel and sent the manuscript to his publisher right before his death, completing his final dyad of novels – chronicling the unusual investigations of a strange sort of amateur detective, a crime novelist experiencing a dreadful sort of afterlife…

A Borrowed Man

In the 22nd Century, the world population has reached a stable level of a billion or so, the environment is in a good state of repair, and aggression between national governments has tailed off. The population quite likes these last two factors, and attribute them to the first: they therefore have grave reservations about the process of “recloning”, in which a dead person has a new body grown from their DNA and their mind imprinted on the brains of that body from a scan taken when they were alive. After all – if everyone got to come back, the population would shoot back up again.

Reclones, therefore, are not full human beings under the law of the Continental Government of North America – much as slaves were not considered full human beings in America’s past. Indeed, reclones are essentially slaves – they can be purchased, they can be destroyed on a whim, they cannot own property of their own, in a legal sense they are very much property. Owning your own reclone is expensive, of course – imagine the cost of care and feeding. Hence the library system. Many people are interested in interacting with authors from the past (though reclones can’t go back further than the 21st Century, when the mind-scanning technology was perfected), and so libraries keep a supply of recloned authors to loan out from time to time.

Ern A. Smithe is a reclone of the original Ern A. Smithe. The original wrote beloved crime novels. The reclone does not – recloned authors are not permitted to write books of their own, since that would make their old classic works seem less special. The original wrote and thought like a regular guy. The reclone still thinks the same – but he talks in the slightly stuff style of Smithe’s narration in his books, because people expect authors to talk like their prose. And Smithe knows that if people don’t check him out or consult him frequently enough, he’ll be killed to make space for someone else.

One day, Colette Coldbrook walks into the Spice Grove Public Library, where Smithe lives on a shelf, and checks him out for a ten day stint. Coldbrook explains that her father died suddenly recently, and when her brother popped open the old man’s safe he found nothing except a copy of Murder On Mars – one of Smithe’s books. And her brother has been murdered. Coldbrook is a real classy dame – the sort a reclone could get used to being on extended loan to, especially if you could parley it into a regular thing. But Smithe has written enough hardboiled detective fiction to know that such dames mean trouble…

Continue reading “Gene Wolfe Faces the Death of the Author”

People Will Do Anything For a Little Head

It’s 1970s Mexico, and Alfredo Garcia has made a terrible mistake: he’s gotten Theresa (Janine Maldonaldo) pregnant and skipped out on her. Theresa’s fine with Alfredo making himself scarce, because she knows if he stuck her round her father – a feared organised crime kingpin known only as El Jefe (Emilio Fernández) – would kill him. Unfortunately for her, El Jefe is violently patriarchal enough to have his men get rough with her in order to get Garcia’s name – at which point El Jefe’s criminal organisation swings into high gear, since the boss has offered a cool million to whoever brings him Garcia’s head.

Bennie (Warren Oates) is a gringo who makes a living playing piano in a Mexico City bar. He encounters some of El Jefe’s agents, mentions he might know where Garcia is, and learns he can earn a cool ten thousand if he delivers the head to them. (Naturally, they don’t tell him that’s only 1% of the reward money.) As it happens, Bennie’s girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) saw Garcia recently – as Bennie correctly guesses, she cheated on Bennie with Garcia a while back, and when she confesses this she also tells him that Garcia got killed in a drink-driving accident a week ago. Easy payday, right? Bennie and Elita just need to go on a little road trip, head out to the grave, dig him up, get the head, and get the money. Only Bennie’s not the only one out for a payday – and El Jefe’s agents warn him that if they don’t get the head in the next few days, his life’s forfeit…

(A content warning before I move on: this is an article about a Sam Peckinpah movie, as is frequently the case with his films that means there’s some rape content which I’m going to have to discuss at one point.)

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is generally held to be the last truly great film made by Sam Peckinpah. Oh, sure, Cross of Iron has its advocates, and is noteworthy for not pandering to the myth of the clean Wehrmacht as much as some depictions of the Eastern Front had, but it’s questionable whether it goes far enough in pushing against it, and it bears the scars of a troubled production process which legendarily had Peckinpah and lead actor James Coburn improvise the ending after the producers tried to shut the production down due to budget overruns (contributed to in part by Peckinpah’s out-of-control alcoholism).

Continue reading “People Will Do Anything For a Little Head”

Primordial Resonance

It’s fair to say that when it comes to recent point-and-click adventures, Wadjet Eye are one of the hottest publishers in the field right now, having spent some 15 years putting out a regular stream of high-quality games. I slept on their output for a while, but I’m catching up, so here’s a review of two games of theirs from 2012. As with much of their output, they were both produced using the Adventure Game Studio development software, but whilst the annual AGS Awards showered one of them with prizes, the other one was almost totally snubbed. Let’s see how fair that was…

Primordia

At an indeterminate point in the future, humanity is extinct, but human creations live on. The crashed airship UNNIIC rusts in a vast wasteland; the robot Horatio Nullbuilt spends his days attempting to repair it with the aid of Crispin, the wise-cracking floating buddy he made out of spare parts. Horatio is on Version 5, which means he’s been rebuilt several times; his memory of his origins, and those of UNNIIC, are fuzzy to say the least, but he takes solace in the religion of Humanism, which teaches that a deity called Man created machines to maintain the world on Man’s behalf.

One day, a big mean-looking robot busts through UNNIIC‘s hull and steals the power core, leaving the ship powered down. Doomed to starve for want of energy if they don’t retrieve it or something of an equivalent power level, Horatio and Crispin must activate auxiliary power, scan the wasteland for energy spikes, and see what they can scavenge. It soon becomes apparent that to complete their quest they must go to Metropol – the greatest, and indeed only, city of the age. Crispin is excited to see the big city – but something in Horatio’s core programming makes him highly averse to it. Little does he know that in Metropol he will find not just the power source, but his own history – and more about the fall of Man and the rise of the robots than is good for his peace of mind.

Continue reading “Primordial Resonance”

The Secret Is That They’ve Botched the Sequel

In 17th Century France, the mysterious Zandona led the Puritas Cordis sect, which revolved around Zandona’s apocalyptic prophecies. In the present day, in the face of rampant climate change and widespread warfare, as well as a swathe of alarming natural disasters, American televangelist Pat Shelton leads a revived version of the group, preaching a similar apocalyptic message.

Meanwhile, Nina Kalenkov and Max Gruber have broken off their romance, the spark having cooled after the resolution of their adventure in Tunguska. Max has jetted off to Indonesia to assist an old college pal of his, feisty archaeologist Sam Peters – but when her expedition comes under attack, Max’s attempt to rescue her culminates in the discovery that Puritas Cordis is not merely interpreting many of the disasters facing the world as legitimising Zandona’s prophecies, it’s proactively causing those disasters in order to dupe the world into buying into their doctrine. (As it turns out, Zandona himself had tried a similar scam back in Renaissance France.)

For her part, Nina’s taking a holiday and enjoying a nice cruise – but her peaceful trip is interrupted when Puritas Cordis’ ruthless agents take drastic action to acquire a certain document, a letter from a 17th Century nun which hints at the location of a “key” to unravelling the schemes of Zandona himself – and might just be the key to foiling Shelton’s revived version of Zandona’s scam…

Secret Files 2: Puritas Cordis is the sequel to Secret Files: Tunguska; as with the predecessor, Fusionsphere Systems and Animation Arts developed it, Jörg Beilschmidt returns to do the design, and Marco Zeugner is on scriptwriting duty, and the finished product was published by Deep Silver. Tunguska released in 2006 and this came out in 2008, so the sequel had a fairly fast turnaround time, so despite some sprucing-up in terms of graphical presentation the underlying basis of the game has not evolved that much since its predecessor. To be fair, though, it didn’t need to. The first Secret Files game was very much a traditional point-and-click adventure, and the sequel makes no pretence of being anything else.

Continue reading “The Secret Is That They’ve Botched the Sequel”

Burroughs’ Nightmare Geography

Though the autobiographical Junky and Queer were written before it (and Junky was published substantially prior to it and made a small splash), there’s no question that Naked Lunch and the Nova Trilogy were the works which made William Burroughs truly infamous, particularly since they involved the debut of his bizarre form of prose surrealism. Likewise, though he’d put out a few pieces after it, a case can be made that the Red Night Trilogy is Burroughs’ final work of significant substance. Released over the course of the 1980s, as the HIV epidemic impacted multiple subcultures that Burroughs had long had a foot in (most particularly the gay community and the world of intravenous drug users), it’s not really about AIDS (even though a plague is featured in Cities of the Red Night) so much as it’s setting a capstone on his experimental fiction.

As much progress had been made in the intervening decades, society was still relentlessly unsympathetic towards drug users and homosexuals alike (let alone homosexual drug users); Burroughs, for his part, remained unwilling to compromise. Merely rehashing the tools and techniques developed in his glory days would just be going over old ground; for this last charge, Burroughs changed his angle of attack, bringing back more stretches of comparatively straightforward and intelligible narrative whilst reserving his more bizarre tools for when they would be most effective.

Cities of the Red Night

Burroughs introduces this opening novel of the trilogy by explaining his inspiration: reading about the pirate republics of the 17th and 18th Centuries, particularly the “Libertatia” colony supposedly founded by Captain Mission (though this one may be apocryphal), as examples of communities working on a voluntarist philosophy in stark contrast to the hierarchical societies of the time.

This prompts Burroughs to speculate as to what could have been had the pirate republics made common cause with the colonised peoples in the regions they established themselves (rather than acting as, in effect, unlicensed colonisers) as well as each other, so as to provide a disparate source of resistance against the authoritarian powers of the time. Burroughs posits that the US defeat in Vietnam indicates that the empires of the age would not have been able to root out such an insurgency any more than the US was able to defeat the Viet Cong – especially when by Burroughs’ estimate the technological gap between the pirate republics and the Spanish or British would have been significantly less than that between the US and the Vietnamese insurgents.

What unfolds after this statement of intent is, in its own way, just as bizarre as anything from the Nova Trilogy, but the methodology taken is rather different. Burroughs’ arsenal of occult obsessions (improvised chaos magic proliferates), sexual fetishes (boners and jizz everywhere), and surreal/morbid imagery (many, many nooses and hangings) is still very much in place, but this time he doesn’t turn all the dials up to 11 and deploy everything at once.

Continue reading “Burroughs’ Nightmare Geography”