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Underground Reading: On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

On Stranger TidesThere's a lot to recommend On Stranger Tides (1987), another superb offering from the best genre author you’ve never read, Tim Powers.  It’s carefully researched and written, with likable characters and a propulsive plot. It showcases Powers’ cross-novel magical economy. It’s a subtle, progressive take on basic high fantasy tropes. It’s a noir-inflected pirate novel.  There are zombies. Oh, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. 

It’s the seventeenth century. Jack Chandagnac began life as the son of an itinerant master puppeteer, just as puppetry ceased to be a going concern.  Tired of his father’s exhausting, hand-to-mouth existence, Jack quits the family business and moves to England to become an accountant.  His father dies, alone and penniless (in an incredibly affecting flashback – Powers really knows how to tug a heartstring), and Jack determines to journey to the Caribbean and claim the inheritance out of which his father’s evil scheming brother cheated him.

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Old Releases (New Covers): The Call of Cthulhu and Conan the Barbarian

Vintage's The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales and Gollancz's Conan the Barbarian each collect existing material from the two greatest writers in the genre. Beyond the shiny new covers, there's nothing included that's new to their existing readers. But any collection of these authors' work has a lot to offer new readers, and the stories have been carefully selected for that purpose.

Vintage Classics - Call of CthulhuLovecraft's work is out of copyright and just popular enough that both specialist and mainstream publishers have been happy to take the plunge in recent years. Since 2008, we've seen new editions from Gollancz and Penguin, as well as a host of collections from small and electronic publishers. 

The new Vintage collection, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales, has stolen a trick from the picture-shows and made its pitch using fancy-shmancy 3-D technology (ooooh aaaaah). As far as cheap thrills go, having some slightly elevated wiggly tentacles on the cover is more on the "cheap" side than the "thrilling"... but... God help me, I bought it. However much my (tiny) rational mind screams in protest, the cover did its job. 

Beyond the red-blue wigglies, The Call of Cthulhu has more value to someone approaching Lovecraft for the first time. The editor (uncredited) has done an excellent job of sifting through Lovecraft's body of work and finding the most commercial nuggets. The theme is weighted towards the Cthulhu mythos. As well as the famous titular story, the collection contains "The Dunwich Horror", "The Nameless City", "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", "The Whisperer in Darkness", "The Festival" and, of course, "At the Mountains of Madness". Already, this excels as a primer for the Elder Gods.

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Underground Reading: Iron Men and Silver Stars, edited by Donald Hamilton

“The point I am trying to get across to my writing colleagues is: Let’s not get too enamored of absolute historical accuracy, and for heaven’s sake let’s not start thinking of ourselves self-consciously as great creative artists inheriting a grand literary tradition stemming direct from Owen Wister, whose Virginian was actually a pretty dull book.” – Donald Hamilton

The above passage is from Mr. Hamilton’s passionate introduction to Iron Men and Silver Stars (1967) a collection of Western shorts. Donald Hamilton is best known as the creator of Matt Helm, the “American James Bond” – a series of heavy-breathing adventures that sold in the millions.

Mr. Hamilton’s introduction sets the tone of the book. He damns historical accuracy with faint praise, declaring as long as no one “rides north from Denver to Sante Fe”, the reader won’t (and shouldn’t) care. He further illustrates his point by adding that, as far as proper history goes, cowboys rarely fought with bare hands and the ladies always rode side-saddle – two rather dull truths that fly in the face of the Western literary tradition. “After all,” Mr. Hamilton concludes, “I’m a novelist, not a historian, and if I get too absorbed in the detail of what actually happened back in the nineteenth century, I may lose the pace of the story I’m trying to tell in the twentieth.”

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Formula One

Formula OneAnother charity shop find, Waddington's Formula One Car Racing Game (1962) seemed awfully intimidating at first. A fairly lengthy (8 page) rulebook, a lot of bits and pieces and, most of all, we don't know a thing about racing. Car goes zoom. First one past the ribbon wins the need for speed. Never trust Cary Elwes.

Fortunately, our friends John and Bhavna know their Schumachers from their Earnhardts, so we made an evening of it.

The board is one enormous track, neatly divided into tiny boxes of roughly-equal size. Each race consists of laps around the track (like, John assures us, the stuff on TV). The tricky part to conceptualise is that the boxes on the board don't stand for distance, they stand for speed. Each box is a 20 mph segment. So if you're travelling 60 mph, you move 3 boxes. 120 mph, 6 boxes. (Despite the instructions' best assurance, this isn't actually measuring speed, but velocity. I think. Someone that knows something about physics should come by and tell me how this game works.)

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'Nothing is ever wasted' - Simon Morden and the Metrozone Trilogy

Equations-of-lifeIt took a full six pages of Equations of Life to realize we'd discovered another capital-A-Author-We-Like. But we didn't realize how fully awesome Simon Morden was until we did some internet poking. A proper rocket scientist, a speaker at Greenbelt, a prolific essayist, former Arthur C. Clarke judge... this is a man of many hats, all of which fascinate us no end.

Fortunately, as this (wide-ranging) interview shows, he's also incredibly patient, as we fired all our questions at him at once.


PK: You have an impressive scientific background (advanced degrees in geology and planetary geophysics), so how (and why) did you turn your hand to writing fiction?

SM: This comes up a lot. I became a scientist because I read lots of science fiction. I was already interested in science – especially space stuff as I was three when they first landed on the Moon – but one fed off the other in an entirely organic way. And when I was at school, we were still allowed to electrocute each other and set things on fire, so it was proper science.

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We're very pleased to announce our first anthology of short fiction, Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse.

The collection features stories set at the end of the world, as imagined by some of the biggest names and hottest newcomers in science fiction.

Pandemonium collects over a dozen original stories inspired by the art of John Martin, and will be released this October to coincide with the Tate Gallery's new exhibition of his work.  Martin (1789 - 1854) was a Romantic painter with a taste for sweeping Apocalyptic scenes. Although he never received much positive critical attention, his huge and wildly imaginative paintings were popular with the masses. Since his death, Martin's reputation has gone through periods of complete insignificence and others of great renown. In short, he's our type of guy. 

Pandemonium will be edited by Pornokitsch's Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin, with a foreword by Tom Hunter, director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Pandemonium will be available to purchase as an ebook through Amazon or the project website. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the UK's most prestigious prize for science fiction literature. 

For more information and to join the mailing list, check out A partial list of contributors is already on display, with several more to be announced soon.

Friday Five: 20 Favorite RPGs

RPGs, sweet RPGs, are what bring us together today. Whether they're traditional Gygaxian tabletop adventures or the most advanced video games, they're the things we argue bout and obsess over. We definitely fall asleep thinking about them. Read about our favorites after the jump, and then tell us about yours!

We're particularly delighted to add a special guest contributor to this week's Friday Five rollcall.  Magnus Anderson lives and writes in London.  He has made numerous appearances on Lollards of Pop on Resonance FM, discussing gaming and pop culture, and devised a cryptic treasure hunt which was published by Big Finish as part of a Bernice Summerfield anthology. He is currently working on a book due for publication in 2012.


Judge Dredd the Role Playing Game (Tabletop): Issued at the time when the comic was at its most sardonically playful, the mega-city’s bizarre criminals and futurisims lent themselves perfectly to the game’s source books, which which were liberally littered with comic art and came with cardboard miniatures of hundreds of characters.  Colourful, gorgeous and thrill-powered.

judge dredd rpg The Hobbit (8-bit adventure): Innovative in so many ways, this made its mark as a proto-RPG with pioneering, autonomous non-player characters.  Awe-inspiring in 1982, it also introduced frustrations that needed workarounds - after watching Thorin abandon the adventure to sit down and sing about gold too many times, the smart player’s strategy is to lure him to the troll’s cave and lock him in.

Fallout 3: A work of genius. It must be. I know this because it features hours of grindingly repetitive searches through metro stations and offices, punctuated by imbecilic conversations with pathetically inert characters and regular death-by-irradiated-mole.  Yet I finished every possible mission, and want to play some more.  Genius.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (Tabletop): When Games Workshop stretched its wargaming franchise into a role-play universe, they produced adolescent catnip: a rulebook with three hundred course pages of cod-Teutonic myth making, and a single, endlessly intricate campaign about the demonic corrupt in of royalty. Perfect for twelve year olds.

Maelstrom: “It can take months to recover fully from a fight.  If a character is in bed, resting, each of his wounds heals at a rate of one point a week.  If he continued with his normal life, the rate is one point per month.”  And that’s how real RPGs roll.

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Monsters & Mullets: Beetlejuice (1988)

Beetlejuice posterJared and I sat down to Beetlejuice with pretty low expectations. We'd seen the film as kids, of course, and again at some point after we'd hit the puberty wall. Jared thinks he must have been about 14; I honestly have no idea how old I was when last I watched it. But our memories were hazy, all stripes and sandworms and weird subplots about model towns. It's okay, we reassured each other; we only have to watch it once.

You know what we discovered? Beetlejuice is actually pretty great.

Adam and Barbara Maitland are a pleasant couple. They have an enormous, creaky old mansion (a comfy version of the Bates Motel house) and a two weeks vacation ahead of them. They can't have kids (this is nicely, if not subtly, established). They love each other. They're happy.

Of course they die horribly.

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Lauren Beukes & Joey HiFi @ British Library

Don't forget, the award-winning author/designer duo of Lauren Beukes and Joey HiFi are hanging about at the British Library this Saturday.

You can find them in the Out of This World Exhibition (or in a reserved space at the cafe) from 1.00 to 3.30. Lauren will be doing a quick talk at 1.15. 

You can show up on the day, but, if you're organised and RSVP, you'll be entered into drawings for awesome Zoo City prizes - including South African editions of Lauren & Joey's books and even Zoo City apparel (thanks to the nice people at Angry Robot).

More details here or you can sign up below.

Damn You, Peggle! Damn You to Hell!

When you write about games, the temptation is to write about proper games: the ones the people in the know play, for which you have to actually invest in a console or a top-end PC, and which come with a cast-iron guarantee that they’ll eat your life until you finish them (or for all eternity, in the case of the Elder Scrolls). But I realised the other day that I currently spend more time playing games on my iPhone than I do on my Xbox. And since mobile games are being touted as the saviours of the industry – just look at EA’s recent $1.3 billion buyout of Popcap – it seemed time to show them some love.

PK - angry birds

It used to be Angry Birds, the game everyone and their grandma loves. The trouble is, I apply the same level of crazed completism to ‘casual’ games that I do to RPGs. I didn’t just have to finish every level of Angry Birds, I had to get three stars in every level. And I didn’t just have to get three stars in every level, I had to find every single egg too. I’d like to say I had fun, but the truth is it was soul-destroying. By the time I was on my 100th try at getting that pointless red bird to pass through enough glass bricks, there was absolutely no pleasure left in it. It was just a grim obligation.

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