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Fiction: 'She is Cleopatra' by David Bryher

Review Round-up: Science Fiction Video Games and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

Science Fiction Video GamesSadly eclipsed by the self-devouring #gamergate monster is a simple truth: computer games are fun. Like, really, really fun. And, as fortunate as we are to live in a Golden Age of processing power, it was almost more fun for us to have shared gaming's gangly teenage years. By 'us', I mean the first generation of folks that got to grow up with fairly easily accessible computer games - an era where there was visible, palpable improvement with every new release.

I personally grew up with (at? on?) my Apple IIe. I remember when we finally swapped to a (now) 286 - even though the new computer was functionally better in every way, I still made us cling to the poor IIe for another year, simply so I didn't lose my Ultima character. Poor computer. It didn't even get the dignity of breaking before being replaced: it was just obsolete. Given how hearty the IIe was as a machine, it probably still runs now.

All that means, of course, is that even as an amateurish (more 'sporadically obsessive') gamer, I have spent my entire life raising and destroying virtual civilisations. It reminds me a bit of the famous Denis Leary sketch about masturbation - "I have wiped entire empires off my chest with a gym sock". I'm afraid the metaphor, however distasteful, is apt. The vintage days of computer gaming were purely about self-actualisation: building, razing, winning, losing, all on one's own.

Enter Neal Tringham's Science Fiction Video Games (2014): a towering monument to our futility. I don't mean that to sound dismissive of this excellent (and absorbing) book - instead, it looms triumphantly, an exhaustive catalog of the tens of thousands of hours that have been spent in the company of that virtual gym sock. For those looking for a 1000 Games To Play B4 U Die printed Buzzfeed list, keep looking. Rather than merely remind the reader of games gone by, Mr Tringham tries to answer why? What is it about these games that makes them so damn good? He approaches the task with rigour: breaking down each game into its components and examining what makes them special, from 1995's  I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream ("presented with a great deal of angry passion, but offers no true moral choices") to 2012's Angry Birds Space ("the eponymous missiles remain endearingly cheerful despite the inescapable knowledge that every assignment is a suicide mission").

I'm neither a scholar nor a hardcore gamer, so I can't evaluate Science Fiction Video Games from either of those perspectives. But as someone fascinated by geek culture, and what it is that makes things like this so appealing (so appealing, in fact, it ate many good years of my life and is still chewing), this book goes a long way towards helping find answers. Mr Tringham's neat turn of phrase keeps this survey from being too dry, while his discerning eye makes it more than a coffee table book. Highly recommended for anyone that wants to  recall their gaming golden years - and also sate their curiousity about what exactly made them so shiny. A useful reference and an exceedingly fun read.

inj-culbard-dream-quest-of-unkown-kadathMeanwhile, INJ Culbard continues to do no wrong. In his latest adaptation, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (2014), Mr Culbard manages to (yet again) shed light upon the unseeable, and, perhaps more impressively, make a good story out of of H.P. Lovecraft's most rambling creations. The original story, a novella, has always been one of Lovecraft's more Dunsanian works - a sort of peripatetic epic quest in which the dreaming hero meanders around increasingly abstracted lands until he discovers True Love's Kiss (or, since HPL didn't hold with kissin', a shiny golden city). Robert Price argues that there's evidence that the story was influenced by Burroughs as well, and there are also certain similarities with the early John Carter stories - the magical faraway place, the alien dreamscapes, the sense of loss. 

Lovecraft was very good at terror, but less talented at, well, happier emotions. His stab at the quest structure stumbles because, at least in the original tale, there's no sense of optimism (or even progression). Randolph Carter is seeking a gleaming utopian city. He bangs his head against the metaphoric wall for a while, then runs in increasingly vast circles, gets kidnapped a lot, and eventually (SPOILER) learns it was where he started from all along - the Boston of his youth. (Which, as an aside, is hilarious 'grumpy old man' material: basically, everything was better 'back in the day'. Get it?) Lovecraft's patented inability to write any character that isn't, essentially, himself, is also on full display - this is essentially a hero's journey that features neither hero nor journey.

For fans of Lovecraft, "The Dream-Quest" is notable because it is, as far as I can recall, as close as Lovecraft actually gets to writing something Dunsanian. This is Lovecraft writing world-building fluff - detailing the geographies and potentates of the dreamlands, as well as the alliances and eating habits of the various monsters. And given his boundless creativity, that really is a lot of fun - from moon-beasts to zoogs, Celephais to Ngranek, this is a story crammed with details of the fabulous and fantastic. Whereas his (proper) horror emphasises the unknowable, "The Dream-Quest" is, although still occasionally symbolic, infinitely more effable.

Enter INJ Culbard, who takes this rambling, rhapsodic and repetitive jaunt through time and space and gives it that final dimension it needs: progress. Mr Culbard's editorial work is impressive, as he gives the story a pace that it lacks, as well as a sense of finality. He emphasises the escalation of the quest, so even as Carter returns to the same place over and over again, each time it feels like the stakes are rising further and further. Mr Culbard's art helps generate much-needed dramatic tension: he captures the brightness and joy of the shining cities and dreaming landscapes, as well as the bleakness and horror of the mysterious woods and the beasts within (including an encounter with an avatar of Nyarlathotep - 'the priest in the silk mask', who Culbard cleverly reinterprets as the King in Yellow). His work freely plays with layouts, emphasising the action and occasionally giving way to a two-page spread of truly epic stature. 

If I'm underwhelmed by the original "Dream-Quest", that merely raises my appreciation of this new adaptation. Whereas the original was baroque and (frankly) silly, Mr Culbard's interpretation keeps the creativity and the vision, but also infuses it with a sense of purpose. The novella, despite its flaws, was always an impressive piece of craft - but with this new edition, it has become an excellent story as well. It has been a delight reading INJ Culbard's interpretations of Lovecraft's more famous works, but this book, given the trickier source material, may be his most ambitious and successful yet.