Thursday, October 12, 2017

Early TSR Artwork That I Dig

Fantasy artwork has become unpleasantly slick over the past twenty or so years. That's been a primary point I've been making over the years when posting old book covers. Everything has to be so professional and sharp you could practically cut your fingers on it. There is little room for the truly pulpish, let alone the amateurish or semi-pro.

One of the things I love most about the early days of role playing was its embrace of the amateur, kludged nature of itself. A lot of the art in the original TSR booklets was used because it was cheap. It's rough, kinda lousy, and I absolutely love it. In my Black Gate article this week I wrote some of these pictures figure heavily in what I want fantasy to look like.

As D&D became more successful and professional, the art changed. Through the original AD&D books it remained very cool. So, with no more blather, here's TSR art that still strikes my fancy.

from the original Dungeons & Dragons rulebook

from the Greyhawk supplement

Some people hate Bell's art from Greyhawk, and if I looked at it unbiased, I might agree. I can't, though. These pictures conjure up memories of walking through the woods of Pouch Camp talking about the game, the smells of autumn and campfires, and the lure of role playing - they are perfect.

From the Blackmoor supplement

I don't love David Sutherland's work as much as some people, but this Umber Hulk is beyond perfection. What still stands out is its complete lack of connection with any sort of Euro-style fantasy. 

from the Basic Game boxed set

Maybe the first Trampier art I ever saw. He was the greatest of the original illustrators and the creator of the unfinished Wormy cartoon. He picked up and left behind illustrating and died a few years back.

I always wanted to play a campaign set in this subterranean world.

The first Tom Wham picture I ever saw. His art is the most cartoon-like of the original TSR artists and always makes me chuckle. He's also the designer of some terrific games, including The Awful Green Things from Outer Space and Search for the Emperor's Treasure.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

New(ish) Fantasy Cover Art I Like

I've posted numerous pieces on cover art, greats from the old days and poor modern examples as well. I'm on record about my distaste for today's photo-shop at. It's tacky, rarely looks cool, and much of it seems intent on downplaying fantasy stories being fantasy.

Now, I know we don't live in the glory days of Jeff Jones and Frank Frazetta, but there's no excuse for not having good cover art. As that thought percolated in my brain the past few days, I tried to remember modern covers I liked. Here's what came to mind.

Before I even knew who Enge and Morlock were, I saw the Blood of Ambrose cover and wanted to check it out. The later books in the series feature increasingly crappier photo-shop art.

The original Desert of Souls cover kicks ass. It belongs on the cover of an old-school TSR module or something. The dreamy blue and indigo skies, the improbably leaping swordsman, it all cries of serious heroic fantasy. Bones of the Old Ones isn't quite as good, but it makes no pretense about being anything other than heroes fighting a magical monster.

The covers for the Shaper series are good examples of bold, graphic designs some publishers are willing to use instead of photo-shopping. I love the colors and almost-silhouette figures. The only problem is the distracting text in the middle of the first and third covers.

Simply beautiful covers. I'd have put the subtitles below Bakker's name, but what do I know?

What contemporary covers do you like?

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


Howard Andrew Jones' exciting announcement yesterday of a new magazine, Tales from the Magician's Skull, is great news for swords & sorcery. My fantasy/sci-fi knowledge is pretty broad, but Howard's depth of S&S knowledge is amazing, and way beyond mine. If anyone can give Adrian Simmons and Co. over at HFQ a run for their money, it's Howard.

But then it's not a competition. It's a new berth for stories that don't really have enough editorial support for my tastes. Aside from HFQ and Swords and Sorcery Magazine, there's no magazine or site wholly dedicated to S&S. Cirsova's a smashingly good publication, but its focus is on a wide range of pulp stories, with as much sci-fi as fantasy. Grimdark Magazine's been better than decent, but again, S&S, particularly as inspired by Appendix N is not its focus. Skelos is good but publishes very little heroic fantasy. Beneath Ceaseless Skies, once upon a time, deigned to publish some very good heroic fantasy, but that seems like it was way back in the Year One. A few others - Lackington's, Pulp Literature among them - include a story now and then, but there really aren't many more places to read new S&S.

There's a bunch of magazines that I still keep up as links here at STUFF I LIKE, but I don't ever really look at them. I keep them there just because at this point, why not? Someone passing through here might get a sudden urge to visit Clarkesworld.

When I first started blogging, there seemed to be a real renaissance going on in S&S. Jones' Dabir & Asim, Enge's Morlock Ambrosius, and Fultz's Shaper series  (all Black Gate alumnus you may notice) were fresh and seemed to be getting the proper attention. Milton Davis was publishing. Rogue Blades was still a fully functioning operation.

Now, I'm not so sure the revival I touted five years ago ever really happened.  I swim in S&S weekly (sometimes daily) and I'm not sure I see it as a genre that's growing - in publications or readers. Grimdark has grabbed hold of much of those who would have been S&S's audience in its blood-streaked, grimy hands. I have yet to see a review of any of Davis' books reviewed on any major site except Black Gate. Dabir & Asim are on hiatus and Rogue Blades is silent. Fultz is no longer with Orbit.

It's not all disappointing. HFQ, and now TftMS, will roll out pure S&S on a regular basis. Fultz, Enge, and Jones are all still writing. Davis is a self-publishing juggernaut. The fine folks at Castalia House and Alex at Cirsova are waging a war for Appendix N and pulp goodness, which, while not solely dedicated to S&S, still conjures up some pretty boss stories. Also, their non-fiction goes a long way to keying readers into the history of the genre. Dave Ritzlin has published a trio of solid anthologies.

I'm not sure exactly what I'm getting at here. I guess I'm just examining where S&S is at and where it might be going. To the latter point, I really don't know. If Goodman Games thinks there's enough of a market for a whole new mag, I'll take that as a good sign. Maybe I should just be happy good writers are still weaving good S&S stories. If the genre became "huge" (whatever that would mean in these atomized days) it would probably mean just lots more terrible stuff like Robert Jordan's Conan pastiche. I'm rambling, so I'll call it a day on prognostication. I'd much rather hear what other readers have to say.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Return to Flashing Swords

I made it through eight sci-fi books during my hiatus from swords & sorcery. I didn't abandon it completely (see three roundups, Swords of Steel III, and Nyumbani Tales), but I really made an effort to thing about and read other things. Now I'm done with that. I have to admit I started getting a little bored with sci-fi. At least bored with picking shorter sci-fi works I want to revisit (Dune was a bit of cheat, having started it several months ago). I couldn't just keep reviewing Dickson, Anderson, and Niven over and over again. I mean I could, but I'm not sure John O'Neill at Black Gate would let even me do that.

At the same time as conversations have swirled around on the net and several boards got me jazzed to dive back in with both feet. Finishing Purity of Blood, the second of Arturo Perez-Reverte's swashbuckling Captain Alatriste novels was just the right thing to get me fully primed. This coming week I'll be reading Scott Oden's take on the Northern Thing, A Gathering of Ravens.

Looking ahead, I'm not sure exactly what I'll end up reading. It won't all be pure S&S. There'll be my usual mix of historical adventure and probably some planet adventure stories as well. Grimdark Magazine released an anthology called Evil Is a Matter of Perspective and there's a novella (novelette?) by Howie Bentley I need to read. I'd like to something about R. Scott Bakker's epic series. It's not S&S, but it's harrowing stuff and I've been meaning to take a longer look at it. Then there are all the older works I've been planning to write about as well. There's a lot to choose from.

So, starting next week, it's back to swords & sorcery. Come on over to Black Gate and let me know what you think.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

DUNE Gallery

Frank Herbert's Dune contains some of the most memorable images in all of sci-fi. As such, the book has drawn numerous artists to illustrate Herbert's prose. Then, there are the games and movies inspired by the novel and their attendant artwork.

I'll be reviewing the book this Tuesday over at Black Gate, so I pulled together various pictures I tweeted last winter and collected them here for your enjoyment.

An assortment of covers from Dune's early editions

Vincent Di Fate's seventies covers, complete with shiny text

John Schoenherr Gallery


Sunrise over Arrakeen 

The Sardaukar 

Stilgar and his Men 

Death of the Sardaukar 

Baron Vladimir Harkonnen 

Flight Through the Shield Wall 

Paul and the Hunter Killer  - interior art from Analog

Dr. Wellington Yueh - interior art from Analog

Character concepts by Moebius for Jodorowsky's aborted Dune film

Sam Weber Gallery from Folio Society Edition

Paul and the Gom Jabbar

Thufir Hawat

Baron Vladimir Harkonnen

Yueh and the Duke

Ornithopter before the Storm

Paul and Alia


Guild Liners over the Basin

Player shields from Avalon Hill's Dune game

Thursday, June 22, 2017

So It Goes: Where I've been, what's happening now, and where I'm going

When my aunt died three years ago, I ended up with her house. My grandfather bought it from a bank back in 1943 and fixed it up with a gang of his fellow Norwegians. I love the house, mostly because I've spent a large part of my life there. 

The problem with the house is that it's about 150 years old and my aunt's maintenance of it was piss-poor for the last decade of her life. When my wife and I decided to move in, there was more than a little work to be done. Then we hired a nice but business sense-lacking contractor. Eventually, we fired him, found an awesome new guy, and moving in. A year and a half later than planned. So it goes. 

The last month or two has been madness. Every time it looked liked we were done, something came up. First, we learned the sump pump didn't work when the basement flooded with three inches of water and fried the hot water heater. At the same time it looked like we'd have to rip up ten feet of sidewalk to clear the sewer line. Fortunately, that last one didn't happen, but we didn't have water in the house for a week.

I'm telling you all this 1) for the heck of it, and 2) to explain where I've been. It's been a struggle to keep on top of my regular Black Gate reviews, so this site has just gone silent. Now I'm back(ish).

I've been enjoying the heck out of reading old sci-fi for Black Gate these past few months. I hope you've enjoyed following along as I've returned to my youthful haunts. So far, most of the trips I've taken have been good fun, particularly some of the most recent ones, City and Half Past Human in particular. 


In addition to becoming burned out on swords & sorcery, I was getting a little irritated by the recent kerfuffle over hard sf vs. soft sf. I think there was a serious misunderstanding over the two definitions. 

As long as I've been aware, hard sci-fi, a term apparently coined in the fifties, referred to fiction that tended to utilize the hard science (ie. physics, mathematics, etc.) for its story hooks. That means Clarke, Clement, Anderson, as well as Niven, Bear, and Brin. You'll note all those writers took tremendous liberties with science, to the point that they included wholly fantastic things like psychohistory the Teela Brown gene. At some level, though, the getting some of the science right is important for the stories they're telling.

Soft sci-fi, a term generally attributed to Peter Nicholls of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, refers to writing with two strands. The first, echoing the real science, is concerned with the soft sciences, such as anthropology, sociology, and the like. Think of Ursula K. LeGuin's sci-fi. The second strand is one where the science is just not that accurate or important. A good example here would be Simak's City, where the even the broadest generalities of how the robots function or humans (and dogs) are transmogrified into Jovian lifeforms are never a concern. Nicholls also wrote that what's hard and soft sci-fi is all a little nebulous and rarely a clear cut set of categories. I definitely can't disagree with that.

The pre-WWII sci-fi that everybody was up in arms defending doesn't need to be defended, let alone by crapping on later "harder" fiction. The examples people brought up about Campbell and company dismissing older sci-fi were worth discussing, but only insofar as it explained why Astounding published what it did and what it didn't. Writers like Anderson, Norton, and Heinlein may not have been writing as extravagant space opera as Doc Smith had, but they didn't stop writing tales of heroic action and adventure just because they took more time thinking about physics.

The only thing that matters is whether a story's well told. Sticking labels on things is really only beneficial to book sellers and critics. It helps them find a place to put, the former to stock their shelves, the latter to decide if they should condescend to reviewing it favorably or just dismiss it as so much trash.

I like science fiction that's concerned with ideas as much as I like stuff that's pulp adventure. When I read sci-fi, it's a question of what mood I'm. It's really a question of using props that are explained scientifically instead of supernaturally. This means Edgar Rice Burroughs=Robert Heinlein=CJ Cherryh=William Gibson=Cixin Liu.

I'm not done with swords & sorcery by any means. A few weeks back, I reviewed the mighty Charles R. Saunders' new collection, Nyumbani Tales over at Black Gate. Even though I swore off heroic fantasy for the time being (except my story roundups), I readily agreed when Milton Davis asked me to review it. I'm glad I did, because it's an important book. It gathers together 13 of Saunders' non-Imaro stories set in a fantastical version of ancient Africa. That there is no other review of this book than mine is an indictment of the failure of fantasy readers and critics to recognize and respect one of the best and most important voices in the genre. For those of you who haven't bought it yet, go forth, now, and buy it!

I have a short story roundup next week that, if I get everything read in time, will have at least one nifty surprise. I might even break my promise to myself and read some S&S for myself. It's been a long time since I read any of the Witch World books and I think I need to get back to them.


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Finally, the coolest thing I've got coming up is I'm going on the radio. Folks on Facebook already know that, so I figured it was time to spread the word here as well. 

MakerPark Radio is the brainchild of Kristin Wallace. She's wanted to do this for years, and it's finally happening. She's got all sorts of DJs lined up, with metal, hip hop, hardcore, a Sri Lankan kids' show, and all sorts of other cool stuff. We've got a booth built into the front of Staten Island Maker Space with a big picture window looking out onto the street and Maker Park. It goes live on July 1st.

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My show is called MUSIC I LIKE. It's exactly what that says. There'll be bits of everything rock 'n' roll that I like, from rockabilly to psychedelia to prog to metal to punk and more. I'll be on every Sunday from 4pm to 6pm EST. Expect lots of glitches and mishaps the first few times out. Nonetheless, it should be a blast.