SENSOR SWEEP: The Anti-Conan, Purging Humanity, Risk-Free R&D, and Pervasive Nihilism

Monday , 20, February 2017 15 Comments

Erasing the Pulps (Hooc Ott) Tarzan in Strange Beds — “Heinlein got the idea for the novel when he and his wife Virginia were brainstorming one evening in 1948. She suggested a new version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894), but with a child raised by Martians instead of wolves.”

Role-Playing Games (Just The Caffeine Talking) Nostalgie du Geek: Champions! — “Champions also completed my transition to fully plotted adventures. A comic book style story has to have a villain, and that villain has to have a plan, and ideally there should be some fun set-piece action sequences. These are not the sort of things one can throw together on the fly by rolling some dice on a random encounter table. Especially not when designing that master villain and all his henchmen requires as much fiddly number crunching as creating a new player character. I never sat down to run a Champs game without a fully prepared scenario.”

Appendix N (John C. Wright) Razorfist on Elric — “Elric of Melniboné, whose exploits were faithfully recorded by the famed (if notorious) Michael Moorcock, is one of those characters I am glad I read when I was young, because I do not think I could enjoy such stories today, as my tastes have narrowed. But a luminary of the fantasy genre he certainly is. He is the anti-Conan, frail where Conan was brawny, overcivilized and decadent where Conan was hale and barbaric, etc., and hence is the godfather of all the dark fantasy antiheroes we now swamping the genre.”

Game Blogging (The PulpArchivist) Don’t Split the Party: Conan’s Motivations — “One of the pure delights of my introduction to pulps as pulp fiction and not individual stories was reading the game bloggers that Jeffro Johnson introduced as part of his Appendix N discussions. Not only was the insight into gaming interesting, but they, as a whole, thought deeper and harder about what made science fiction and fantasy than, say, Tor.com. The best lit crit and the clearest voices telling why the old tales entertained so well was not being done inside the SFF community.”

Rewriting the Pulps (Wasteland and Sky) Selective Memory ~ An Appendix N Post — “So why didn’t my love of books endure while my love of stories flourished? Easy. Because every book I picked up was a nihilistic slog filled with sex, drugs, celebrating the pointlessness of life, and how special it was to be an artist and be above the stupid common man. I’m not just talking about modern literature that no one reads either. I’m talking about everything on the bookshelf that was published while I was growing up. Not to mention that the ‘classic’ books foisted on me as a teenager were the most boring and flavorless things you could imagine. Maybe you had to be there, but can’t you just imagine? Should I read a book about a sainted alien who teaches the world the truth about orgies, or read a manga about a mysterious gunslinger on a distant planet who has to stop his nihilistic brother from purging humanity from their new world? How is that a choice? I still have trouble imagining anyone preferring the first as genre defining art, while telling me that latter is juvenile trash. But that’s how it was.”

Comics (Ron Edwards) Context Too! — “I don’t know the answers – as far as I know these questions have never been asked – but some of the effects of the history are clear to me. Marvel was forced, the whole time, to seek a hit in strictly comics terms, hoping to leverage it into visual and other media, and for the most part it only managed to succeed at beta level at best, always doing Hail Mary passes. In practice, that made it a risk-free R&D department for DC for forty years. It’s hardly a popular thing to say, and jumped-up fandom like The Comics Journal sought hard to keep it unsaid, but through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Marvel consistently contributed content innovations which soon appeared in refined and – eventually – better-promoted forms at DC, sometimes by the same creators and sometimes not.”

Old School (The Frisky Pagan) Post-apoc settings as a prerequisite of Sword & Sorcery. — “There is no great sword & sorcery adventure without exploration and discovery. Exploration requires wilderness, and wilderness implies a negation of the World-Building (‘everything needs to be mapped and known’) ethos in sff. Adventures require tension, and tension is impossible if everything is mapped, if civilization is dominant, or if the protagonist can go back to their HQ to resupply and rest. Hence, a vast blank space on the map and danger from which you cannot escape are required: dungeons, caves, ruins, or being trapped inside a magician’s tower. The hero, if he wants to survive, has no other option but to keep going down.”


Role-Playing Games (Rawle Nyanzi) The Guidebook Rules — “It’s safe to say that tabletop RPGs are better served when you kick the supplements and let your brain run free. What you come up with will be far more interesting, far more engrossing, and far more engaging than anything the game’s producers make. Draw upon everything — the books you read, the movies and TV shows you watch, the video games you play, the life you live. The tabletop experience is a unique one, and it is best experienced with an unshackled, unchained, and unbounded mind.”

Robert E. Howard (PC Bushi) Solomon’s Key — “The fact that he clearly wrestles with these issues, though, and that he acknowledges that someday he may be punished by God for his deeds, indicates that he is both sane and morally driven. He doesn’t know for a fact that what he does is right, but that’s what faith is about – living out your beliefs without ever being presented with ironclad proof. Were he mad, he would likely not suffer doubt or regret, nor would he grapple with weighty decisions. It’s true that Kane is resolute; a man of action. But he is also introspective.”

Books (Vintage Novels) Mohawk Valley by Ronald Welch — “So, in Mohawk Valley, Alan Carey faces nearly the most depressing fate for any young member of the English nobility: when he elects to fight a duel to clear his name, his nerves fail him and he drops his pistol, convincing everyone present that he’s not just a cheat but also a coward. Alan heads home convinced that he’s shamed not just himself but also his family name and his swashbuckling old father. The rest of the book is about how he rediscovers his courage and self-respect, even as he relinquishes his status as an English nobleman for the harsher and more egalitarian life of an American backwoodsman. There’s more than one way of being brave, and more than one way of being noble, the book seems to say: if you fail at one thing, pick yourself up and try another. I can imagine that being a fairly encouraging thing for a young man to read.”

Traveller (Tales to Astound) TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Start Small — “It is possible to start the game without a ship. Not only might the Players not end up with a character with a ship, but also you as Referee might simply declare that the PCs can’t start with a ship. There are several good reasons for this. First, getting a ship serves as a terrific carrot for the PCs. They might get one for services rendered on the behalf of a noble, a planetary government, a corporation, and so on after several adventures. Second, it keeps the movement of the PCs somewhat limited at first. Not because you are forcing them or railroading them into particular situations and trapping them… but simply because in the implied setting of early Traveller makes traveling between the stars a big deal.”

Film (Stuff I Like) Welcome to Hell: High Plains Drifter (1973) — “The thing I haven’t mentioned is that High Plains Drifter isn’t just a story of vengeance, but of supernatural vengeance. Clint, though, is no avenging angel, but an ambassador from below. For its inhabitants’ crimes, Lago is turned into an outpost of Hell. The movie doesn’t have any ghostly apparitions or spectral coyotes howling in the sagebrush, but gradually, the mystery of Clint’s presence in Lago is revealed to have unearthly underpinnings.”

Books (Every Day Should be Tuesday) Review of Death’s End by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu — “I distinguish between a work written by an atheist and the product of an atheistic society because works written by Western atheists, especially American atheists, are still working from essentially a Judeo-Christian perspective. Even if they are reacting against it, their work can still be defined in relation to it. The typical nihilism in modern storytelling, then, is an act of rebellion that we can try to rationalize away—for there to be a rebellion, there must be a dominant order. The nihilism of Death’s End, on the other hand, is pervasive, and thus terrifying. Other books are dark in a way that makes you happy you can set them aside and return to normal life after you’re done reading. The darkness of Death’s End is fundamental, and reaches beyond the four corners of the book.”

Erasing the Pulps (Seagull Rising) My Current Writing Project — “Damon Knight was a mid-tier author who bullied his way to the top through hubris and vindictiveness. He did everything he could to assume command of the genre, from writing amateur and biased reviews (Really, Damon? Blish is a great writer and Robert E. Howard a hack? Yagottabekiddingme,) to starting workshops to teach gullible writers ‘How it’s really done,’ to founding the SFWA and conveniently serving as its first president, the better to determine who really counts as a ‘the right kind of author.’ Of all of the gatekeepers who have made science fiction worse over the years, he was the original and so far as I can tell, the worst of the lot.”

15 Comments
  • icewater says:

    I… honestly cannot read preachingly nihilist hard SF anymore. It isn’t even that it offends me or depresses me, it is that it angers me. It was “Blindsight” that “killed” it for me. I remember how, after I finished the novel, I spent some time browsing user reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, blogs, to see if anyone else saw what I saw. What I discovered was that every other guy praised its author’s outlook, and barely anyone was challenging it in spite of novel’s sharply didactic nature. Those who gave it low reviews did so because they found it boring or too “sciency”… It was as if anyone with half a brain agreed with Watts. And so I was angry. At him, at the book itself, at SF “fandom”, at modern neuroscience… Few things produced such a deep revulsion in me.
    That so few people try to challenge nihilism in any of its form is worse for me than nihilism itself.

    • deuce says:

      I hear you, Ice. The one thing I’ll say for Watts, he did punch back against the vile RequiresHate rather than laying down and taking it like so many others did.

      http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=5370

      • Sam says:

        I really liked Blindsight for the fact that the nihilism isn’t sexed-up. It isn’t cool. It’s just blank despair. To me, the novel seemed to actually appreciate the problem of reductionist materialism, rather than glorify it.

        • caleb says:

          That is good point, methinks. Ultimate implications of materialist, reductionist view of human existence shown without any make-up. “You are nothing, your very conscious existence and individuality are nothing but a liability and a source pain.” No make up, no forced coolness or edginess, just a clean picture of where is it that this particular worldview leads us.

          It actually works almost like this philosophical horror of sorts, rather than a SF novel. Immersing oneself in such a pure darkness has its therapeutic uses, tho not ones Watts might have intended (at least in my case).

  • deuce says:

    Glad to see the Sensor Sweep is back, Jeffro!

  • john silence says:

    I honestly believe that, if Heinlein had any idea that “Stranger” would one novel of his that mainstream would latch itself on some 50, 60 years in the future, he would’ve burned the manuscript himself and he would do it with a smile on his face.

    Apparently, there’s a big budget TV adaptation of it in the works. Imagine the tragedy of that novel receiving its own faithful adaptation. when that “Starship Troopers” movie was made as intentionally disrespectful subversion/satire of the original novel, novel that was openly spat on by the director and screenwriter:

    “I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring,…It is really quite a bad book.
    I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn’t read the thing. It’s a very right-wing book.”

    ^Director’s own words.

    • deuce says:

      Never a huge Verhoeven fan. Became much less so after that movie. More Leftist spin. THAT is what I call “cultural appropriation”.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke

      Three are the tallest blades on the lawn.

      The forest before all gone, the Nothing’s attendants clipped any shoots they found.

      Let the old pure savage wild come.

      In a year or five, towards the light of the sun, Giants will tower to dwarf those weeds in the ground.

      Rot and detritus at their feet the proud three shall become.

    • I don’t know if the Starship Troopers movie was intentionally disrespectful, but it was incredibly dumb, and its popularity shows how far gone moviegoers have become. “Let’s take a knife to a gunfight” is one way to describe it: a monster movie where the goodguys have forgotten that they could have tanks and aircraft. Quite apart from a dense, close ship formation against enemies who “fire” unguided ammo. DOH!

  • Always fun to make the sensor sweep

  • James Sullivan says:

    Sensor Sweep, how I have missed you!

  • JD Cowan says:

    Thanks for including me again! Great selection this time.

  • Salamandyr says:

    Hooc is ridiculously off base about Heinlein. He’s taking one person’s remembrance that RAH compared his early draft of “Stranger” as being in the vein of “Tarzan” as somehow a dishonest attack on straight pulp?

    RAH? The man famed for his appreciation of Burroughs–so much so he named two of his characters after them, and made numerous references to Burroughs’ stories? The man whose appreciative essay on his friend E.E. “Doc” Smith led me to scour used bookstores as a teenager to find the entire “Lensman” series?

    That guy, the man who regularly extolled the values of personal bravery, honesty, and self sacrifice, (whose sexual morals yes, were about those of an alley Tom) is somehow some avid attacker of pulp?

    If Heinlein did compare his early draft of Stranger to being in the vein of “Tarzan” rather than Mowgli, the likeliest explanation was that he figured two people (who lied to him about their science fiction fandom) would know a popular adventure film character over what at the time was primarily a literary character.

  • Ben says:

    I like on the RPG = Post apoc…

    Blog of Holding pointed out that RPG worlds had to be “Orange Sun” worlds (or Red Sun –
    think Zothique)- that is many millions of years ahead of our times, the great civs either going to the stars or collapsing several times, layer on layer of civs rising and falling and all the ‘tech being what created the Orcs, Elves, even the “Magic” and obviously all the countless ruins full of monsters and treasures for the “Murder Hobos” aka “Heroic Questing Adventurers” to plunder, the occasional near Clarketech (aka Eye of the Evil lord of Dragon Age) they fight some evil living character seeking so the latter vs former tag is used more often.

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