PC Pick-and-Mix 1: Flexible Rules, Internet Fools, and a Sinful Origin

Not every videogame I play inspires sufficient thoughts to build an article around, but many inspire enough of a reaction that I want to write about them anyway. This is what might be the first of a strand of articles in which I give a somewhat brief overview of some recent games I’ve played, and my thoughts on them.

Baba Is You

Originally whipped up for a Nordic Game Jam, Baba Is You is an endearing puzzle game where you (mostly) control Baba, a little rabbity thing who must traverse various levels on a not-really-defined quest. Each level requires you to fulfil a winning condition, but exactly what that is – and whether you play that level as Baba – is up for grabs, along with a whole other aspects of the game.

You see, each of the level has actual words floating about in there, and these words define the rules for the level. For instance, a typical level might start off with “BABA IS YOU” and “FLAG IS WIN”, which means that you control Baba and you need to get to the flag to win. You can shove each constituent word in those sentences around and make new sentences, and thereby change the rules – but care must be taken that you don’t do so in such a way that creates an unwinnable situation. (For instance, if you break up “BABA IS YOU” and you don’t have another “THING IS YOU” statement on the field, you stop being able to control any of the objects on the level and you can’t take further moves.)

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Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Pastiches

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

So, now that we’ve taken a look at The Starry Wisdom and its Alan Moore-flavoured inclusion, the short prose story The Courtyard, we can now put Moore’s latter-day forays into Mythos fiction under the microscope. These have largely taken place with the aid and encouragement of Avatar Press; first there was the limited series Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Cultures, collected into a trade paperback of the same name, which covered a mixture of archival Mythos and non-Mythos works by Moore, as well as some work not by Moore at all thrown in for the sake of the ride; then there was a comic book adaptation of The Courtyard, then a graphic novel sequel (Neonomicon), until finally and most recently Moore has treated us to a three-act graphic novel sequence collected in three trade paperbacks, entitled Providence. Over the course of these he develops a range of ideas about the Mythos – but does he really manage to grow beyond the kernel of a concept offered in The Courtyard’s original appearance? Well… let’s see.

Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Cultures

The title of this implies far more conceptual unity than it actually possesses. Yuggoth Cultures and Other Growths was originally conceived by Moore as a full collection of Cthulhu Mythos works, but Moore lost most of the manuscript in a London taxi. The most substantial of the surviving pieces was The Courtyard, originally intended for being adapted here until it was spun out into its own adaptation, whilst the other scraps – Zaman’s Hill and Recognition – were brief poems.

What you get here, then, is not Yuggoth Cultures as originally envisioned by Moore, not least because he never envisioned it as a comic in the first place. Instead, it’s a mixture of long-lost odds and ends from Moore’s back catalogue, a range of interviews, essays, and supporting pieces, adaptations by Antony Johnston of non-comic works by Moore (including the two non-Courtyard bits of Yuggoth Cultures that survive and a couple of songs), and Yuggoth Creatures, a big fat slab of Antony Johnston’s own comics-format Mythos pastiches.

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Paradys: Nice Town, Wouldn’t Want To Live There

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Tanith Lee’s epic bibliography is a daunting prospect for anyone daring to attempt explore it, but at least some effort here and there has gone into producing omnibus editions of significant works by her. Overlook Duckworth have produced The Secret Books of Paradys, a fat compilation of the series of books Lee penned set in the titular city. Paradys (or Par Dis, or Paradis, or Paradise – its name varies between tales and sometimes within them) is a sort of gothic funhouse mirror take on Paris, and Lee’s Paradys tomes tend to be divided into notional colour-coded books which each offer a different story of the city. Originally published in the late 1980s and early 1990s, these are stories of horror, fantasy, and eroticism unfolding in a setting close enough to the real world to feel historical but counterfactual enough to feel fantastic. That all sounds like great fun in principle, but how’s the execution?

The Book of the Damned

This comprises the first three colour books of Paradys – each a separate novella with some themes in common with the others. Our introduction to Paradys comes in the novella Stained With Crimson, constituting Le Livre Cramoisi, narrated by Andre St Jean, a struggling writer who maintains a foothold in high society thanks to his friend and occasional lover Philippe. One day, returning home from a seance at Philippe’s mansion, Andre is accosted by a tattered man in the street, who gives him a ring with a magnificent red gemstone set in it, carved with the likeness of a scarab. Before Andre can enquire too deeply about it, the man flees, pursued by a horseback rider chasing him with dogs.

Philippe believes the ring belongs to society hostess Antonina Scarabin, and drags Andre along to one of her salons, but she denies that it has anything to do with her. However, the fateful meeting has now happened: Andre has become passionately obsessed with Scarabin, whose motivations and desires are maddeningly obscure. Over the rest of the novella we follow a strange trail of bloody killings, morbid internments, and shifts in identity – including Andre becoming Anna and Antonia becoming Anthony through some curious deaths and rebirths – and strange hints of vampirism creep about the edges, but the full implications of what we are reading are hard to grasp.

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The Man Whose Dicks Weren’t All Exactly Alike

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

By 1960, Philip K. Dick’s writing career was had hit a low point. The work he was primarily interested in were his mainstream novels, all of which had been soundly rejected by publishers (not undeservedly). The work which was actually bringing in money, however, was his science fiction – but with the exception of Time Out of Joint he hadn’t produced any new science fiction since 1955, with the rest of his late 1950s sales consisting of expansions and revisions of earlier work. The early 1960s would see him turn out two more attempts to break into literary fiction, which would also fail, and there was a real possibility that he would quit writing and work to support then-wife Anne’s jewellery business which she operated from their home in Point Reyes. (After all, that was bringing in more money than Dick’s own writing.)

By the end of the time period covered by this article, Dick turned the corner from a frustrated literary author stuck in dogged pursuit of a creative dead end and become a rejuvenated SF author producing some of the best work of his career. The rekindled commercial and critical success he would earn from this material would cause Dick to become reconciled to his SFnal muse, laying the groundwork for a 1963 in which not even basking in a Hugo win and dealing with the disintegration of his marriage to Anne could slow down his output.

But before we get to the good stuff, we have to wade through more mainstream novels. Put on your waders, this is going to get messy.

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The White Wolf’s Rehash

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The three books of Michael Moorcock’s Second Ether trilogy rattled out in rapid succession, between 1994 and 1996. Even though two of the three books relied heavily on already-published material, the bulk of said material had emerged in 1991-1995. This means it was prepared whilst Moorcock was wrapping up the extensive process of compilation and revision that produced the (mildly differing) UK and US Eternal Champion omnibus editions of his earlier work.

It’s little surprise, then, that here he indulges a lot of the habits he indulged in whilst compiling the omnibuses. In the omnibuses Moorcock showed a distinct tendency to parachute in more overt references to the Multiverse in his earlier work, often in the form of renaming characters so their surnames would be some variant of “von Bek”; here, the von Beks take centre stage, as though this trilogy forms something of a sequel to the earlier von Bek novels. Moorcock tacking on new books onto an earlier series is often a bad sign – the post-Stormbringer additions to the Elric saga were pretty useless in my estimation, and my objections to much of the latter-day Jerry Cornelius stuff is a matter of record. It’s an even worse sign when he’s resurrecting a sub-par series where the originals were no great shakes; the second Courm trilogy, whilst I thought it was somewhat better than the original books, was still kind of limp and lightweight, and the second Hawkmoon trilogy was a crime against literature.

On the other hand, I always thought that the von Bek novels had a lot of unrealised potential, so perhaps this time around Moorcock will finally deliver the goods. With this in mind, I commenced reading the Second Ether series with an open mind, hoping that it would prove to be a cut above a lot of Moorcock’s more recent fantasy cash-ins.

(Spoiler: it’s shit.)

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GOGathon: Syberia I and II

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

GOG is something of a haven for point-and-click adventures: not only does it provide a platform where most of the old classics of the genre (with a few exceptions, notably most of LucasArts’ output) are not only available again but available at a very reasonable price, but it also offers a comparatively low-cost and low-risk way for people like me, who dropped out of the point-and-click scene after its mid-1990s peak, to catch up on some of the more well-regarded recent offerings.

One game series which adventure game fans went gaga for is Syberia, an offering from Microïds designed by Benoît Sokal, whose other career as a comic book writer and artist had honed both his aptitude for dialogue and his ability to offer up a unique and interesting aesthetic – both skills which come in very handy when presenting an adventure game. But as I’ve sadly previously experienced, the enthusiasm of the adventure game community and the actual quality of an adventure game often fail to correlate. Will Syberia be another such case? I can only hope not…

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The History of the Von Beks

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

At the start of the 1980s, Michael Moorcock’s fortunes were looking down. Massive disruptions to his home life coincided with the setback of Byzantium Endures, the first of the Colonel Pyat books, being rejected by his publishers, who informed him that they really weren’t interested in any mainstream novels from him and perhaps would he like to knock off some of that heroic fantasy he does that sells so magnificently well.

Moorcock shrugged and went back to the drawing board, with the result that despite being written after Byzantium Endures, The War Hound and the World’s Pain actually got published first. It’s the first of a series of novels Moorcock has written about the von Bek family, who he decided to make an utterly central family to the multiverse whose scions popped up absolutely everywhere and who counted several incarnations of the Eternal Champion amongst their ranks.

Thanks to the regular processes of revision he inflicts on his works – truly, Moorcock is the literary George Lucas – Moorcock has retroactively inserted the von Bek name into a range of earlier stories and novels as part of the process of making them the core family of his fiction – including turning the protagonists of The Blood-Red Game and The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius into von Beks. I find this both a self-vandalism of Moorcock’s legacy and an utterly pointless exercise, so for the purposes of this review I will not be tackling any of those. (I already covered The Blood-Red Game in any case in an overview of Moorcock’s early standalone novels; as for The Pleasure Garden, it’s a brief and not very interesting short story which includes an alternate universe version of Hitler for cheap shock value, so I wouldn’t say it’s especially essential.)

Furthermore, I won’t be covering this time around any books Moorcock wrote after The War Hound in which a von Bek plays a prominent role but isn’t the main protagonist, or where the books in question are not part of the core von Bek series but are more properly considered parts of other series. For instance, a von Bek appears prominently in The Dragon In the Sword, but John Daker/Erekosë is clearly the protagonist of that one, and likewise whilst the von Beks play an important role in the Second Aether trilogy those books aren’t part of the core von Bek series.

Moorcock originally intended to produce a trilogy of major works of heroic fantasy featuring von Beks as protagonists – The War Hound and the World’s Pain, The City In the Autumn Stars, and Manfred; or the Gentleman Houri. Only two of these manifested (both of which are reviewed here); Manfred was supposed to be a direct sequel to The City In the Autumn Stars, making use of material which was cut from it (apparently about half the novel was cut back, which is quite alarming considering how amazingly long and overblown it is… but I’ll get to that later), but the material is now apparently lost and Moorcock doesn’t seriously expect to get around to tracking it down or reconstructing it in his lifetime. However, in between the two novels which did emerge there slipped out a little side dish in the form of The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, a historical novel with no supernatural, fantastic or SF elements which happened to feature a von Bek protagonist and had plentiful connections to the other two books, and which is usually considered to be, if not part of the main von Bek series, at least an interesting appendix to it, so I’ll be reviewing that too.

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The Tudor Agent (or Some Quire In the Night)

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

As you’ve probably gathered by this point if you’ve been following my Michael Moorcock articles, the guy doesn’t really go for standalone novels. By at least some interpretations of the whole Eternal Champion dealio, of course, you could argue that he has never written a standalone; if, like me, you tend to prefer to split up Moorcock’s work by protagonist (if only for sanity’s sake) then the number of standalones he’s written is dwarfed by his longer series, and few of his standalones have achieved much recognition at all.

The major exception is Gloriana, or the Unfulfill’d Queen, which was honoured with the World Fantasy Award when it first came out, got a spot in the Fantasy Masterworks series some decades later (which is the version I have), and is generally quite a celebrated entry in his bibliography. Part of this is because it’s something of a departure from his usual SF and fantasy works, being in tone much closer to his Serious Business writing and in premise offering not a transgressive trippy New Wave of SF romp or a sword and sorcery adventure in the vein of Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, Michael Kane and so on, but instead presents a politically-driven story set in the court of an alternate Queen Elizabeth in an alternate Elizabethan era. Part of this is because of its sexual content, which culminates in a particularly nasty sequence at the end and goes down some pretty dire tangents over the course of the novel besides.

So, trigger warning: discussion of rape and the sexual abuse of children is going to occur in this review. It also comes up in the book and is sufficiently central to the plot that it’s not really skippable.

Continue reading “The Tudor Agent (or Some Quire In the Night)”

We Need To Talk About Hitler

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Editor’s Note: please check the publication date before reading this article. Also take salt: apply liberally 🙂

As you’ll know if you’ve read my spirited defence of Robert E. Howard from a while back, I’m not keen on people badmouthing respected fantasy and SF authors out of a misplaced sense of political correctness. All too often, this is a result of people chronically failing to see the wood for the trees and latching on to minor issues which any adult reader should be able to move beyond. This is why I never, ever stoop to writing vindictively negative reviews of people’s books; what place have I, as a reader, to tell authors what to do or criticise their work, when I haven’t written a published novel of my own? No, my place is to promote what is best in the genre, and defend it from its more spiteful critics, despite the insults thrown at authors – and, by extension, their readers – by the rabble.

Numerous authors have been subjected to these vile ad hominem attacks on their work, themselves and their audience, and I for one am sick of it. What does it say about the fantasy genre when an author of the stature of Jay Lake says that he no longer feels safe to go to conventions due to accusations of misogyny and racism against him, when anyone who has read Green will know Jay Lake can’t be a sexist or a racist – after all, he says he isn’t, and offers the fact that he adopted a Chinese girl as very convincing proof, so why can’t we take an honourable and well-meaning man at his word?

These character assassinations have been made against more or less every serious author in the genre of adult fantasy and speculative fiction. From Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, who popularised the genre in the pulp era, to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who lent the credibility only an Oxford professor could offer to the field, to Robert Heinlein and the many other authors who brought us the golden age of American science ficton, to George R.R. Martin, whose works have made a transition to television which is more successful than any previous fantasy-themed TV series, pretty much every one of the great men responsible for making major advances into the popular consciousness in the name of the Literature of Ideas has been the target of the most noxious and appalling smears.

And no author’s reputation has come under assault more than Adolf Hitler’s.

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The Warrior of the Timestreams

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Michael Moorcock’s fiction is mildly obsessed with 20th Century history, and in particular the build-up to and impact of the world wars. (Growing up in London during the Blitz will do that to a young mind.) In fact, I’d say that within the wider scope of the Eternal Champion series you can pick out a smaller sub-series about various figures who are doomed to be the spirits of their particular segment of the 20th Century. Jerry Cornelius is explicitly described as being just such a spirit of the post-World War II age; you could make an argument that in the Between the Wars series Colonel Pyat takes on this role for the period… uh… between the wars.

And back at the very start of the 20th Century you have Oswald Bastable, who like John Daker in The Eternal Champion finds himself unstuck in time and meandering between various alternate timelines, in all of which some version of the world wars is either about to happen, happening, or just happened. Often cited as being a prototype for steampunk (despite the fact that The Dancers At the End of Time goes for a neo-Victorian aesthetic much more aggressively), the stories featuring Bastable essentially consist of Moorcock indulging in deconstruction via pastiche, spoofing out of date genres of adventure fiction in order to highlight how awful they are.

Sounds good in theory, but is it any better than Moorcock’s sword and sorcery epics, which were getting increasingly lacklustre at this point in time? Can Moorcock handle the matters of colonialism and racism and socialism he sets out to play with without turning Bastable into a mere mouthpiece for his opinions? Let’s see.

Continue reading “The Warrior of the Timestreams”