Previous month:
August 2014
Next month:
October 2014

Underground Reading: Dicing with Dragons and Shared Fantasy

Spurred, I suppose, by my middling opinion of Of Dice and Men, I've picked up a pair of books about gaming: Gary Alan Fine's Shared Fantasy and Ian Livingstone's Dicing with Dragons. Although both have the same broad topic - an introduction into tabletop RPGs and the people that play them - the two books are, unsurprisingly, very different.

DicingWithDragonsMr. Livingstone's book is about the games themselves. Dicing with Dragons (1982) is more of an overtly commercial volume: an introduction to the ways and means of games for a reader that is presumably interested in having a go themselves. 

Dicing with Dragons is a exhaustive survey of the 1982 gaming scene, and includes all the options available for the interested gamer (there are hundreds! It takes a whole chapter!). For the 'big' games of the era - D&D, Runequest, Tunnels and Trolls and Traveller - he even provides more in-depth comparisons. Dungeons and Dragons, he finds slightly unrealistic, but grants that as the first of them all, is prone to the most criticism. Tunnels and Trolls is interesting primarily for its accessibility to the solo gamer. And Traveller, he concludes, requires a good grounding in scientific topics (which, Livingstone believes, all science fiction readers will have). It is essentially a catalogue... but one written by a great of the genre. And Livingstone's criticism is genuinely interesting - above all, this is one of the most influential game designers ever, busily reviewing contemporary (and now arguably 'primordial') games.

That said, collectors are mostly interested in Dicing with Dragons because of the solo adventure it contains (apparently a must for Fighting Fantasy completists!), which is also nice (I got squished to death).

Charmingly, there's also a long section about how computers (oooooh!) and their impact on the RPG world, although, at the time of writing, their immediate benefit was in rapidly calculating 'play by mail' results. Independent play is actually a theme throughout the book. RPGs weren't quite as ubiquitous in 1982 and, presumably, the reader buying this book didn't have friends to explain the games to them. As someone that grew up and played D&D during its era of wildest popularity, solo play was very rarely mentioned in game materials, magazines or references. And now any chapter on one-person RPGs would presumably be two words: "Buy X-Box".

Continue reading "Underground Reading: Dicing with Dragons and Shared Fantasy" »

JDM on London

After the leisurely lunch, he put on his top-coat as protection against the increasing chill of the afternoon, and took a long walk through the relative emptiness of the West End on a Sunday afternoon, Piccadilly, Bond Street, St. James's Square, Regent Street. London gave him a feeling of pleasant anonymity, of a measured and timeless courtesy, a feeling that if he had been able to walk on his hands, he would attract very little additional attention. It is, he thought, an older and more complex culture, larded with a certain smugness, shot through with little social nuances and distinctions we never catch, vastly more tolerant of eccentricity. A society of contradictions as strange as our own. They bowdlerise their novels, yet print daily papers exploiting the more feral and rancid aspects of sex with a smirking boldness unknown in the all the rest of the western world. 

From John D. MacDonald's I Could Go On Singing (Fawcett: 1963)

Friday Five: 5 Reasons Michael Bay Isn't As Awful As You Might Think

This week's guest post is Jonathan Wood, who isn't afraid of explosions, loud noises, or anything else you might inflict on him in the comments. If you're impressed by the man with no fear, why not check out Jonathan's books - No Hero and the just-now-on-the-shelf Yesterday's Hero? They're plenty awesome in their own right, and you can tell him so at @thexmedic.

OK, OK, I concede – he is pretty awful. I've seen Transformers. I've wept my tears. But is he really that awful? Well, again, maybe. But also maybe, just maybe not. 

FIREFLY 21. Come on, that Alan Tyduk scene was pretty funny 

OK, this may be a softball, but you remember that scene is Transformers 3 with Alan Tyduk and John Turturro? The one where Alan Tyduk loses his shit and kicks ass, and John Turturro talks him back from the dark place? That was pretty funny, right? You sort of smiled at that point.

Admittedly, yes, it is Alan Tyduk and John Turturro on screen at the same time, so, yeah the scene had more than a fighting chance, but bear in mind this is the third Transformers movie. The THIRD one. John Turturro has been in two previous ones and he's still coming back for more. Alan Tyduk has seen those two and still signed up. So Michael Bay is at least doing something right, even if it's just hiring a good casting director and enabling them with giant sacks of cash. 

You know, if I was going for a more general point, I might mention that Michael Bay has been mixing comedy with the Bayhem back since Bad Boys. And yeah, it's not like I'm pointing at a great cinematic classic, but there were some grin-inducing moments along the way and there have been consistently throughout his work. So yay for Michael Bay and the lols. 

Continue reading "Friday Five: 5 Reasons Michael Bay Isn't As Awful As You Might Think" »

The Lego Movie: Everything Is Awesome, kinda?

LEGOThe Lego Movie is really fun, and funny, and cute, and has a pretty reasonable couple of morals to impart about the importance of imagination and individuality, and it’s great, right? Just like the song says, everything is awesome.

Strip all that away, though, and what’s left? A gleaming toy commercial about that bewildering preoccupation of the American cinematic mindscape: the little boy who just wants to play catch with his dad.

Because what we don’t have enough of in kids’ movies (or movies full-stop) is a nuanced exploration of the burden of white male privilege.

That’s a deeply cynical way to look at a bit of light-hearted entertainment, isn’t it?  The Lego Movie isn’t trying to do anything radical, anything game change-y. It’s just cute and quick and fun, and contains some gentle reassurances about how important it is to be yourself and have fun. That’s all any kids’ movie it trying to do, isn’t it? Stop overthinking things! Let’s all just take a deep breath and then laugh and hug and go eat cookies and not talk about anything.

Oh, pish posh. Let’s get talking. Hey, there are spoilers for the entire film below.

Continue reading "The Lego Movie: Everything Is Awesome, kinda?" »

New Releases: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs USACity of Stairs (2014) is the latest stunning effort from Robert Jackson Bennett. Having delivered ferociously unconventional interpretations  thrillers, dustpunk epics, small town horror, Lovecraftian entities and other speculative staples in the past, Bennett now tinkers with a fantasy world of his very own. His new book is combination of New Weird noir and fantasy epic, set in a universe where reality itself is a malleable concept.

The titular city is Bulikov, the once-glorious once-capital of an empire that once spanned continents. Now, Bulikov is a city of faded glories and a backwater outpost controlled by the city of Saypur. And "faded" is literal: with the untimely demise of Bulikov's deities, parts of the city simply disappeared. Now the city is a ramshackle disaster, a fusion of architectures, empires and, in some circumstances, universes.

The old empire was a religious one, based on the uneasy union of a handful of gods - deities with the power to restructure the world at a whim. Centuries ago the Kaj of Saypur, the champion of his people, developed a mysterious device that could kill gods. With that, the balance of power shifted. Now the rationalists of Saypur rule the world, the deities are verboten. Bulikov's history isn't being rewritten as much as it is systematically erased.

When a scholar from Saypur is murdered, "junior diplomat" Shara heads to Bulikov to solve the crime. As is quickly revealed, Shara has far more impressive credentials - she's a super-spy-secret-agent type from Saypur's enigmatic (and semi-omnipotent) foreign service. The scholar was a friend, and Shara's taking his death personally. More so as she starts to unpick the city's many, many, many secrets...

Continue reading "New Releases: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett" »

Three Questions with Kathryn Allan about Accessing the Future

Accessing the FutureAccessing the Future reached its funding goal last week, meaning this forthcoming anthology about disability in SF/F is on its way. As money comes in from funding and pre-orders, the publishers will be able to pay pro rates, so please consider pre-ordering this terrific project. With the success of anthologies like We See a Different Frontier, it is great to see another example of crowd-funding being used to launch projects that explore the future (and present) in long-overlooked and much-needed ways.

Kathryn Allan, co-editor with Djibril al-Ayad, dropped by a few weeks ago to recommend existing works of SF/F that explored the subject well. We invited her back to talk about what's next for Accessing the Future.


Continue reading "Three Questions with Kathryn Allan about Accessing the Future" »

The Best and Worst Books of August

Feast-famine-potluck_ebook-cover_20131122I don't know about you guys - and I promise, this isn't going to get too navel-gazey or woez-is-me - but this was a month where something was always happening. It was awesome, and, even the little bits I managed to take part in will leave me memories for a lifetime. But, wow - that was busy. Sarah McIntyre wrote about the importance of downtime earlier, and I wholeheartedly agree. When you start getting excited about long tube journeys (no signal, no email, just an hour with a book and the sweat of strangers), it is time for a break. 

I did carve out some time for non-Goodreadsable reading - including reading the longlisted selections for this year's Short Story Day Africa. As a pool of short stories, the quality is absolutely incredible, and I've been blown away. The shortlisted stories have now been announced - congratulations to all of the writers involved, and I can't wait to read Terra Incognita.

And the books: I tacked 24 in August. According to my bucketing system, 4 were 'Old', 8 were 'Oldish' and 12 were New. My overall Goodreads target is well on-track (I'm ahead by about a month, I think), but my goal of dividing the year's reading evenly into the three buckets has failed pretty miserably. I may need to spend all of December reading 19th century serials just to balance things out a bit.

Continue reading "The Best and Worst Books of August" »

Fiction: 'Black Paintings' by James Smythe


I first saw the painting in a gallery in Spain. I was there on business, the day after my diagnosis, and wanted to distract myself before my flight. The gallery was so quiet; people standing, sitting, watching the paintings. In England, museums are a thoroughfare before a cafeteria and a gift-shop, where the art is motivation to keep moving. You nod and appreciate it; you move on. In Spain they have benches and people not writing or talking, but watching; as if the art might move, as if there is a chance that the paint itself might do something.

Continue reading "Fiction: 'Black Paintings' by James Smythe" »

The Big Book Drop - 27 September

The Big Book DropWe're hosting, alongside The Book Smugglers (our close friends and deadly rivals!), 'The Big Book Drop" - an afternoon at a central London venue where folks can swing by and drop off their unwanted books. 

It'll be a nice chilled out afternoon - we'll find a venue that serves snacks and drinks, and it'll make a pleasant post-crazy-summer chance to see one another and hang out.

All the donations will go to Give a Book and English PEN. You may remember tables supporting PEN at WorldCon and Nine Worlds, we want to continue showcasing the generosity of our literary community.
As book lovers, many of us have a massive stack of books that need to find happy new homes. Getting rid of books can often be a heart-breaking activity, but this is a chance to do it all in one fell swoop - guilt-free and for a great cause. (We're especially thinking of our fellow bloggers - review copies have a tendancy to pile up, and there's often no discreet way of moving them on to new homes.)
We'll be at the Seven Dials Club (42 Earlham Street, WC2H) between 2 and 6 pm on Saturday 27 September. If you have books - new, used, unwanted, unloved, finished, whatever - please bring them along.
The details, such as they are, are here:
We'll be updating the Facebook page with more information as we have it.
To make things exciting - each book is worth one raffle ticket, and we'll be holding a drawing for  some of the more exotic donations. We've got a few rarities of our own to start the pile - and if anyone has anything else that is fancy-shmancy, that sort of donated prize would be great. Signed stuff, proofs, collectibles that don't quite fit your collection, that sort of thing...

Here's what you can do:

  • Come along, have a drink and say hi - we love meeting our virtual friends in person
  • Bring books - new, used, first- or second- hand
  • Donate something fancy for the raffle

If you can't make it, you can still help:

  • Donate something fancy for the raffle (possibly something intangible, like a service? Or that you are ok to post to the winner?)
  • Spread the word
  • Support English PEN and Give A Book in their other initiatives - there are lots of petitions to sign, ongoing fundraisers or perhaps even a membership!
This is all - in case you can't tell - rather hastily improvised. But let us know if you have any questions - and please spread the word!