Saturday, June 14, 2008

Oddities From my Library - The Original Nerd

For this last trip into my library for a while I want to honor a man who paved the way for nerds: Herbert George Wells. Aside from being one of the people who the majority of science fiction descends from he had a myriad of other interests taken to a degree that would be considered nerdy today. What I'm going to talk about though is the fact that he was the first man to codify kriegspeil, or war game.

Yes, the author of War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man also created the first published war game and so besides science fiction he's also the father of a significant percentage of modern gaming. Modern war games grew from his design, it's the earliest known rule set for miniatures, role-playing games sprung from war games, and between those three they extend into the majority of games published today.

There are two books of note that Wells wrote on the subject and the most important of these is Little Wars. Wells took his inspiration from descriptions of games played by Prussian officers and an article by Robert Louis Stevenson. Neither of them ever published their rules so they are lost to history leaving us with Wells's as the first widely available one.

Who can play Little Wars? Well according to the second sentence: "It can be played by boys of every age from twelve to one hundred and fifty - and even later if the limbs remain sufficiently supple, - by girls of the better sort, and by a few rare and gifted women." Which, of course, explains why women don't play war games; being insulted by the Victorian who created them was just too much of a turn off.

The game is intended to be played with Napoleonic style tin soldiers with each player taking at least forty men to a side. Substitutions for these by modern players is easy but the basis of the game is the artillery which is not. Wells used spring loaded cannons which were built to scale with with soldiers and the point of the game is maneuvering and firing these weapons. I have seen substitutions made with toy guns but it is not the same thing.

Wells's system is a simple one: players alternate turns and each unit can move a certain distance. Infantry move one foot, calvary two, and cannons and carts just one if they have a team in place to move them. Once a player has moved all of the forces on their side they may then fire their cannons a number of times depending on if a team is in place to man and load them. Anyone hit is dead and once this is resolved formations of men combat. They are resolved in straight numbers; an overwhelming number will win and if one side does not have a significant advantage then they whittle each other down. That's the basic form of the game but Wells goes on to provide rules for a command unit and campaign play.

The other book is Floor Games which despite the title does not include any actual games. Instead Wells describes building terrain and structures for the toy soldiers. Floor Games was written before Little Wars so it does not describe any kind of formal game and instead Wells tells the reader how his children use them.

These books have been reprinted multiple times in the past hundred years but I'd recommend the editions from the 1970's. They are facsimiles of the original printings and include some clever marginal illustrations as well as some of Wells's own photographs of games and structures. The books are very entertaining and any gamer with a sense of history should enjoy them.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Review - Star Trek: The Next Generations - "The Inner Light"

Star Trek: The Next Generations - "The Inner Light" 1993 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

I mentioned when talking about Star Trek that I am not a fan of the Next Generation series. I started watching it when it first aired and I stuck with it for a while but my interest dropped off sharply as I started seeing certain things: the repetition of plots and their dependence on deus ex machina endings stand out in particular. There are a handful of Next Generation episodes that I enjoy, far more than any of the follow up series which I have even less tolerance for, but for the most part I just don't like it.

The Hugo voters only honored the show twice in its seven season run but they did choose two of the better episodes for the awards and the first of these is "The Inner Light". In it the Enterprise encounters a space probe which zaps the captain who then halucinates that he is living out his life on the world of Catan. The settlers there have stopped trading their wheat and wool because of a drought. As the crew of the Enterprise attempt to revive him he dreams of a lifetime on that world.

The reason that this episode is so effective, I think, is that it breaks most of the rules of the series. The action for the most part takes place away from the Enterprise. There's quite a bit of technobabel but unlike the majority of the series the story is not dependent upon it. The conclusion carries some weight and feeling of real consequences even if it would be for the most part glossed over.

The downside is that the acting aside from Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean Luc Picard is weak at best. The story is dependent upon the minor guest actors carrying a great deal of weight since the audience needs to go along with the captain in accepting his hallucinated life. They are uniformly bad, though, so as they deliver the generic lines intended to hit the the high points of a life.

And that script isn't very good. The captain may be living out a life but it's a life consisting of the standard family drama high points. If you wrote down a list of five "dramatic" events for a lifetime you could probably get the majority of the episode. Squeezing them into one or two minute scenes doesn't do justice to the theme and the episode depends on the juxtaposition of the familiar character with the surrounding for its impact.

For this reason I wouldn't recommend seeking out this episode as the first Next Generation episode to watch but its clear why it is commonly cited as a fan favorite. It's not a standard episode and that alone makes it stand out in the series.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Oddities From my Library - Games!

Sid Sackson is arguably the first great American game designer. In the decades when board games were stuck with simple roll-and-move mechanics he created games like Acquire and Can't Stop which hold up even in comparison with modern designs. Over the course of his life he designed nearly a thousand games and had a collection of over fifteen thousand board games. Sadly he died in 2002 just as his hobby was undergoing a modern renaissance.

Sackson also wrote extensively about board games and A Gamut of Games is considered his best work. At its heart it is a collection of over thirty board games the majority of which are Sackson's own creations. Few of the games require any specialized equipment (one does utilize four colors of stackable tokens) and Sackson breaks down each chapter according to materials that would be needed: cards, traditional six sided dice, a chess board, paper and pencil, and so on.

While I haven't played every single game in the book the ones I have played have been very good; I suspect Sackson saved his best efforts for this collection. Even the games by other designers that Sackson included are very good; particularly impressive is Origins of WWI where they managed to put a complete negotiating wargame (albeit without direct conflict) ala Diplomacy into five pages. Almost all of the games include both a walk through of a few turns (which sometimes amounts to a full game) and variations to increase the complexity.

Sackson rounds out the book with capsule reviews of every major game that was widely available at the time. It's badly out of date at this point but it is interesting to see what Avalon Hill had available in 1969 for the discriminating consumer.

A Gamut of Games has been out of print for nearly twenty years at this point. It is worth seeking out a copy though since it contains so many unique games that were never published anywhere else.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Finally after six weeks I have a copy of The Book of the New Sun so Nebula reviews will start again next week (just in time for me to go on vacation the week following). And since I'm already digging into it here's a picture of Captain America jumping off a motorcycle into a pack of gun toting neo-Nazis:

Monday, June 9, 2008

Review - Worldcon Guest of Honor Speeches

Worldcon Guest of Honor Speeches
Edited by Mike Resnick and Joe Siclari

As mentioned there will be at least another week before I start up the Nebula reviews again since I am still waiting on The Book of the New Sun. For those desperately seeking information on Timescape I strongly disliked it but I'll save that vitriol for the review.

This book collects thirty-one of the now sixty-five Worldcon Guest of Honor speeches. The ones that are missing for the most part are not included due to a copy of the speech not being available or they were unable to obtain permission to reprint it. Two of the "speeches" were actually interviews but in the case of the Strugatsky brothers that was a natural solution since they only spoke Russian. And in one case it's actually a published essay by Harlan Ellison with a short introduction apologizing for the fact that the real Worldcon speech he gave was unavailable. In several cases it's clear that the speech is reproduced from notes rather than a transcription of the actual speech.

And yet I can hardly blame Resnick and Siclari for the inaccurate title. There were lengthy periods where no one bothered recording or capturing the original speech (at the end of the book they have a plea for recordings or transcripts of missing speeches which includes ones as recent as 2004, and just about every speech from the 90's is missing). When the format deviated it was because that was how the guest of honor delivered their speech that year. Managing to get even thirty-one of these bits of science fiction history together into one book is worthy of praise.

The speeches themselves are a mixed bag. A common repeating theme is praising the audience (always a crowd pleaser); fans are told that science fiction fans are smarter, more clever, handsomer, and all around better than the average Joe and that science fiction is the guiding light of the future. The more personal speeches are the ones I enjoyed the best and they tend to be the more recent ones perhaps due to the guest of honor recognizing that telling the audience how great SF fans are was played out.

Even the weak speeches are important; they're the words of the elders and say quite a bit about the state of science fiction at the time they were given. Robert Bloch, for example, is the only person to have two speeches in the book and they were given twenty-five years apart: before and after his Hollywood success. Hugo Gernsback's speech that triggered his final attempt at publishing an SF magazine is included as well.

That sums up the book; there's a lot of history, some interesting speeches, and a few that are better for the personality that delivered them than their content. The book is unique; I am unaware of any attempt to collect historical information on Worldcon like it. For that reason if you have any interest in the history of science fiction I strongly recommend it; at the very least I can guarantee that you'll find at least something in it by an author you like.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Review - "Eye for Eye", "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight", "Why I Left Harry's All-Night Hamburgers"

Michael Whelan
1988 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

For those who were wondering The Book of the New Sun did not turn up which means that its unlikely I would have finished The Claw of the Conciliator for Wednesday. So there's at least one more week before the Nebula reviews start up again.

But let's get to this week's short fiction.

"Eye for Eye"
by Orson Scott Card
1988 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Card talked quite a bit in his own book on writing about the complications of doing exposition; it's especially necessary for science fiction and fantasy but at the same time its the weakest part of the narrative. I'd like to think he wrote that section with the failures of this story in mind.

The story is an interview with people who at the end turn out to already know the majority of what is explained to them and the character telling them all of this information knows that. It starts with about eight pages of exposition about things they already know then pauses for a page of plot before there's another ten pages of exposition that everyone already knows about how the previous eight pages weren't exactly right. Another page or two of plot follows before jumping right back into extended exposition about how the previous two lengthy expositions didn't fully explain everything. That's a lot of people standing around telling each other stuff and not doing much.

The story is that there's a group of people with super powers hiding among the population. The evil group is breeding for powers and their prodigal son who was the strongest of them all returns but not before the good group tells him about the evil group. Then they all fight.

People in this story are good or evil based on who they're allied with and there's little more motivation than that. The main character's internal conflicts were resolved before the story even began so it was raised and dropped in those long expository sections. Instead the narrative hangs on him picking up a new super power every few pages which lets him deal with whatever new situation has come up.

This kind of story was stale when Card wrote it but today it has gone stale, been made to compost, used to fertilize some grain, had bread made from that grain, and then gone stale again. If you want something like this done well watch Heroes (or not, that second season wasn't as interesting as the first) but avoid this story.

"Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight"
by Ursala K. Le Guin
1988 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1988 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novella

There was a trend in fantasy fiction for a while where a story would be about the protagonist finding out that an animist religion was the real one but thanks to those evil Europeans the magic is dying out. It's was typically Native American beliefs that were at the center of these stories though I've read a few were African or Asian religions were used. I dislike those stories quite a bit mainly because they raise a lot of complicated theological questions which are ignored for the author to just beat the "White men are evil!" concept into the ground. Surprisingly Le Guin's effort this time manages to avoid the heavy moralizing. There is a bit of it there but it's not a heavy handed condemnation of three thousand years of civilization.

A small girl is the only survivor of a plane crash and as she stumbles away from it she is found by Coyote, the trickster in many Native American traditions. Coyote leads her to a small desert village occupied by many animal spirits who nurse her back to health. She befriends them and in the end must choose between them and returning to civilization.

I'm not entirely certain why the story was effective for me. I think it's that Le Guin builds an interesting group of personalities in the spirits that occupy the story. She blends the animal aspects and the human ones smoothly particularly with Coyote. I wouldn't call the story brilliant, I don't think there's quite enough plot there, but it was interesting.

"Why I Left Harry's All-Night Hamburgers"
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
1988 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

This is a story with a moral but it's one you don't see very often in science fiction and one that many science fiction fans need to be reminded of every so often. As a result I didn't mind the moralizing for the climax of the story that much.

A kid gets a job working the counter at a remote hamburger joint in the middle of the night. After the last late night diners go away and before the early breakfast eaters come in a unique clientele arrives to meet and enjoy a burger. They come from a lot further away than the nearest town and the kid is taken by their stories of distant places. His job brings his life to a crossroads one evening when he has to choose what to do with his life.

It's a fable and one that I enjoyed quite a bit. It's a very tight story; there's just enough time to establish the theme and then the decision. That doesn't leave a lot of room for characterization or exciting plotting but because it was a fable and not trying to disguise the foundation of the story as something else it worked for me.

Nebula Winners of the 2000's

2000 Nebula Winners
Novel - Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear
Novella - "Goddesses" by Linda Nagata
Novelette - "Daddy's World" by Walter Jon Williams
Short Story - "macs" by Terry Bisson
Dramatic Presentation - Galaxy Quest script by Robert Gordon and David Howard

2001 Nebula Winners
Novel - The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro
Novella - "The Ultimate Earth" by Jack Williamson
Novelette - "Louise's Ghost" by Kelly Link
Short Story - "The Cure for Everything" by Severna Park
Dramatic Presentation - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon English script by James Schamus and Kuo Jung Tsai and Hui-Ling Wang

2002 Nebula Winners
Novel - American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Novella - "Bronte's Egg" by Richard Chwedyk
Novelette - "Hell Is the Absence of God" by Ted Chiang
Short Story - "Creature" by Carol Emshwiller
Dramatic Presentation - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring script by J. R. R. Tolkien and Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson

2003 Nebula Winners
Novel - The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
Novella - Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Novelette - "The Empire of Ice Cream" by Jeffrey Ford
Short Story - "What I Didn't See" by Karen Joy Fowler
Script - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens and Stephen Sinclair and Peter Jackson

2004 Nebula Winners
Novel - Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
Novella - "The Green Leopard Plague" by Walter Jon Williams
Novelette - "Basement Magic" by Ellen Klages
Short Story - "Coming to Terms" by Eileen Gunn
Script - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson

2005 Nebula Winners
Novel - Camouflage by Joe Haldeman
Novella - "Magic for Beginners" by Kelly Link
Novelette - "The Faery Handbag" by Kelly Link
Short Story - "I Live with You" by Carol Emshwiller
Script - Serenity by Joss Whedon

2006 Nebula Winners
Novel - Seeker by Jack McDevitt
Novella - "Burn" by James Patrick Kelly
Novelette - "Two Hearts" by Peter S. Beagle
Short Story - "Echo" by Elizabeth Hand
Script - Howl’s Moving Castle by Hayao Miyazaki and Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt

2007 Nebula Winners
Novel - The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
Novella - "Fountain of Age" by Nancy Kress
Novelette - "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang
Short Story - "Always" by Karen Joy Fowler
Script - Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro

2008 Nebula Winners
Novel - Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin
Novella - "The Spacetime Pool" by Catherine Asaro
Novelette - "Pride and Prometheus" by John Kessel
Short Story - “Trophy Wives” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Script - WALL-E by Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon and Pete Docter