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James Wallis' "Lost Cause - Last Call and Alas Vegas"

Alas VegasI've spent a lot of time over the last few months telling people about Alas Vegas, my recently Kickstarted RPG-and-novel project, set in a casino city in the desert, heavy on its mythic resonances and its game-mechanics powered by a form of Blackjack played with tarot cards. And the number one response I get back, straight off the block, has been, 'Is it based on Last Call by Tim Powers?'

No. No it fucking isn't.

Alas Vegas has its roots in the mid 90s—about four years after Last Call was published but well before I'd read it, and before Gilliam's adaption of Fear & Loathing, or before CSI was a thing—though back then it was called "Vague As Hell" and I thought it was a short novel. It turned out to be a couple of pages of notes in the Scrapped Ideas file and fifteen years of mostly writing fantasy novels and award-winning RPGs instead. And then I realised that the project should have been an interactive story all along and I started building some RPG rules for it and contemplating a Kickstarter. And then I finally read Last Call.

Fucking, fucking Tim Powers.

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Lavie Tidhar on Spy Novels

I’m an unashamed fan of spy novels, though if I had to make a stand, my heart belongs to the Cold War. One suspects that, if the Cold War didn’t exist, a novelist would have had to invent it. It lends itself perfectly to the murky, grey world of spies in a way no other period does.

Here are three novels that, in one way or the other, helped shape some of my own fiction:

Warsaw DocumentThe Warsaw Document by Adam Hall

I am huge fan of the Quiller novels by Adam Hall (working name of Elleston Trevor) and The Warsaw Document is perhaps my favourite, existing for many years as a beat-up paperback in my collection. Quiller is a reluctant agent working for the Bureau, the most secretive branch of British Intelligence. He has to be coaxed into going on missions, sent near-blind into situations he needs to unravel as he goes along. Hall starts chapters in the middle of the action, then jumping back to the earlier situation, and he uses run-on sentences to evoke a sense of on-going action, a fluidity of movement that makes it hard to let go. I love how The Warsaw Document starts with a tense close-contact fight that stops when “somebody turned on the light”. Quiller is in training – but is soon sent out into a classic Cold War scenario, a Soviet Warsaw in the midst of winter.

“The deadline was close and I knew now what London had sent me out here to do: define, infiltrate and destroy. And I couldn't do it just by standing in the way of the programme Moscow was running. I'd have to get inside and blow it up from there.”

I think it’s the chill that does it for me, the cold of winter. Occasionally Quiller goes south, into warmer climes, but I think it’s the winter of the Cold War that really sinks deep into the heart. I paid homage to Adam Hall, and Quiller, in my early novella An Occupation of Angels (2005), which is dedicated to both the author and his creation.

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Rob Berg on On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

On Stranger TidesIt’s kind of sad that most people who hear the title, On Stranger Tides (1987), think of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film, rather than Tim Powers’ ingenious, critically acclaimed, and widely unknown 1987 fantasy book, upon which it was ostensibly based. For what it is, the Pirates film is alright, mindless entertainment, and before I read Powers’ novel, it seemed like that might be enough, but now that I have, it just isn’t. That this monumentally intelligent and simultaneously, rip-roaringly fun (Zombie Pirates!! Derring-Do!! Sword Fights!! Magic Battles!!) work of literature is even mentioned in the same breath as Johnny Depp’s latest multimillion dollar jaunt as Jack Sparrow became almost offensive to me, as soon as I was fully in Powers’ masterful narrative grip.

But perhaps Powers is having the last laugh. He surely made a handsome profit for having the title of his book attached to a film that has only two things in common with it: (1) pirates and (2) the Fountain of Youth. And even with that, the two bear little resemblance to one another. Disney’s pirates (even their Blackbeard) are lovably campy, B-movie, scenery-chewing, comic book pirates, whereas Powers’ are legitimate, historically accurate, and sometimes truly reprehensible. Meanwhile, both tales’ depictions of the Fountain of Youth are almost comically divergent from each other. Disney’s film seems to be trying to capture something of Powers’ elegant reinvention of the mythology, but so utterly missing the point and mangling it all so terribly that the film likely could have been produced without acknowledging Powers at all. But for Powers’ sake, I’m glad that he made more money on the title than the book itself likely ever did (which is also sad, if I actually stop to think about it, so I choose not to), and also thank the film for inspiring me to seek out the original novel. If it hadn’t been for Pirates 4, I may never have been made aware of Powers’ On Stranger Tides myself and would have missed out on an absolutely stunning read and one of the most beautifully, expertly melded fusions of historical fiction and fantasy I’ve yet to encounter.

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Secret Histories: Procopius, Powers, Tidhar and Griffin

Hide-Me-Among-the-GravesThis week's title - inspired by Tim Powers and fellow guests Lavie Tidhar and Kate Griffin - is "secret histories". The name was rather unashamedly lifted from John Berlyne's masterful bibliography and appreciation of Tim Powers (you can leer at it here), but, like all of our Kitschies events, we've chosen the term as it represents a certain thematic approach to speculative fiction.

The term "secret history" stems from the Sixth Century historian Procopius. While fussing about in an official capacity for the Emperor Justinian, Empress Theodora and their (fairly legendary) general Belisarius, he wrote a survey of their military successes (History of the Wars) and a glowing treatise on the buildings of the day (On Buildings) - both volumes filled with effusive praise for powers that be.

Yet Procopius also wrote the Secret History (or Anecdota), in which he shreds his sponsors to pieces - accusing them of everything up to (and including) being demons in human form. 

Procopius' introduction explains not only his reason for this sudden reversal, but also details exactly what is a "secret history":

"It would not have been expedient for me to describe these events fully while those who were their authors were still alive; for, had I done so, I could neither have escaped the notice of the multitude of spies, nor, had I been detected, could I have avoided a most horrible death; for I could not even have relied upon my nearest relatives with confidence. Indeed, I have been forced to conceal the real causes of many of the events recounted in my former books.

"It will now be my duty, in this part of my history, to tell what has hitherto remained untold, and to state the real motives and origin of the actions which I have already recounted.... I reflect that what I am about to write will not appear to future generations either credible or probable, especially when a long lapse of years shall have made them old stories; for which reason I fear that I may be looked upon as a romancer, and reckoned among playwrights.

"However, I shall have the courage not to shrink from this important work, because my story will not lack witnesses; for the men of today, who are the best informed witnesses of these facts, will hand on trustworthy testimony of their truth to posterity."*

The key definition is buried in the second paragraph - the idea of recounting "what has hitherto remained untold". Not only does this reflect on the idea of secrecy, but it implies that a "secret history" is, in some way, going to contradict the "known history" or official record of events. Although he addresses his own safety in the first paragraph, Procopius' primary concern is that his book will be dismissed as incredible, improbable or simply outright fantasy.

Continue reading "Secret Histories: Procopius, Powers, Tidhar and Griffin" »


Secret Histories on Pornokitsch

For the next week on Pornokitsch, we'll be talking about Secret Histories as we build up to The Kitschies' event on Monday, 28th October with Tim Powers, Lavie Tidhar and Kate Griffin.

You'll spot a lot of Tim Powers-related content, as we're delighted to be the last stop on Corvus' amazing blog tour - but we've also got posts a-plenty about Mr. Tidhar, Ms. Griffin and the whole secret genre... 

We've also set up a page on The Kitschies site devoted to "secret histories", with links to reviews, reading and free fiction all over the internet. If you have anything to suggest we add, just let us know in the comments.

Let the secrecy commence!


Joey Hi-Fi's Weirdness Rodeo

Welcome to the Weirdness Rodeo - your weekly dose of wonder and strangeness, courtesy of Joey Hi-Fi. 
You can follow Joey on Twitter at @JoeyHiFi and admire his work here.



'This song makes me feel like someone just jerked off a dolphin.' The YouTube Comments Choir

'The Most Confusing News Graphic Ever'. Clip from the dark-humoured TV series "Brass Eye". Love this show. (Cheezburger)

In only 13 episodes of the 1989 Zelda cartoon series, Link says 'Excuse me, Princess' 29 TIMES! Watch the vid. (YouTube)

'The Witching Hour', an exhibition featuring Jade Klara (@jadeklara) (Alexander's Band)

Michael Bay was attacked - with an air conditioning unit - on the set of Transformers 4 in Hong Kong. (AV Club)

Vote for Doctor Who‘s ultimate villain for the 50th anniversary celebration. (BBC[Editor's note: Stephen Moffat is not an option.]

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Friday Five: 5 Classic Classics by Mark Charan Newton

We're delighted to host Mark Charan Newton for this week's Friday Five. Drakenfeld (out now!) is a novel that combines the best of historical (lavish setting!), detective (twisty plot, clever characters!) and fantastic fiction (epic stakes!). If there are two things I harp on about a lot it is a) learning from other genres and b) using the freedom of secondary worlds to explore big ideas. And, well, Mr. Newton's done them both. 

Mark was kind enough to drop by and talk about his influences for Drakenfeld - specifically, some of the (very) classic books that helped inspire the atmosphere and tone of the city of Tryum.


DrakenfeldDuring the writing of Drakenfeld, I got a little bit obsessed with the classical world. I totally lost myself within the work of the writers and artists of the time. My plan was to deconstruct the classical world and then reconstruct it in a new arrangement for the book itself. In my head, I hoped my setting could sit just off the map of the ancient world. But as I was doing this, during this classical binge, I thought there were some tremendous books that readers of fantasy fiction could enjoy.  I guess choosing a mere five texts isn’t quite enough to do it justice, but here are five crackers that I reckon you should check out.

The Twelve Histories - Suetonius

This is the National Enquirer or Heat Magazine of the ancient world. Scandalous, full of gossip, not entirely (or "at all") reliable and very bitchy. Written during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, actually a very approachable and concise assessment of the lives, habits, interests and actions of Julius Caesar and the following eleven Emperors. Part of the problem with it is that it’s based on accounts - and incredible biases - of the historians at the time. And part of the issue with this sort of thing is that Caligula and Nero are made to look like cocks, and this portrait of them has echoed throughout history. Reality? They probably weren’t as bad as Suetonius makes them out to be, but boy did he make things interesting.

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Underground Reading: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

How_i_live_now_2Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now (2004) is the award-winning novel of a young woman caught in World War III. Daisy is a world-weary fifteen year old New Yorker, sent (exiled) to her family in Britain by her father and "wicked stepmother". Daisy's been wrestling with, amongst other things, a severe eating disorder, and one of the book's strengths is how this sensitive topic is portrayed. Daisy is honest and transparent about her anorexia, but her character isn't defined by her "issues" - she's a complex, interesting, holistic human being (e.g. this ain't Go Ask Alice).

Daisy quickly falls in love with her new rural surroundings and her quirky cousins. This includes Edmond, a male cousin of Daisy's age, where the love crosses a few - cough - conventional lines. Again, Ms. Rosoff leaves this to the reader to draw their own conclusions, not whether or not Daisy and Edmond are having a physical relationship (they are), but how/if we should judge them.

This slightly awkward bliss is shattered by an invasion by unknown, never-named powers. Britain swiftly falls and is occupied. Although Daisy occasionally mingles with resistence fighters, most of How I Live Now is about survival: finding food, finding her family and generally eking out another miserable day.

How I Live Now is reminiscent of the work of an even earlier era - the invasion literature of late 19th and early 20th centuries, starting with George Chesney's "The Battle of Dorking" (1871). In "Dorking", the protagonist, a nameless soldier, is also witness to a successful invasion of Britain - and similarly spends most of the book trudging hither and yon, mostly looking for food. In a sense, both "Dorking" and How I Live Now share the same themes. Our world - "civilised" society - is unprepared for the horrors of war. Admittedly, "Dorking" approached this with more of an overtly political agenda, while How I Live Now is more about the transience of creature comforts. Both books also reduce the individual - neither the unnamed protagonist of "Dorking" nor Daisy are heroes. They are survivors (barely); rebels only in spirit. These are microscopic personal histories, not epics.

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