Monthly Archives: April 2012
Twenty years ago or so, I was given a copy of the FASA strategy game Succession Wars. It’s basically Axis & Allies, but in the Battletech universe and with a less confusing ruleset. I think. I don’t know for sure because I have never gotten anybody to play it with me. This is not the only game I own that is in this category. I can lump in the FASA games Centurion, Leviathan, and Aerotech. I own a copy of Junta I’ve played twice and a copy of Diplomacy I’ve never actually used (the only games of Diplomacy I play occur via e-mail or online). That list isn’t even counting the RPGs I’ve bought but never actually run (including ones I wrote myself), the multiplayer video games I’ve never actually played with another human being.
I’m not actually complaining, believe it or not. Life is full of more important things than playing games and a great many of them are significantly more fulfilling and enjoyable. It is a point of regret, though, that I never have gotten around to having fun with these things. Other folks have garages full of badminton sets and cross-country skis they never use; I’ve got shelves full of games.
I’m not the only one with such a shelf, either. Many of my friends are significantly more weighed down with tons of boardgames they’ll never actually get around to playing (well, perhaps once), have shelves full of video games they’ll never really play, and have stacks of RPG stuff they’ll never have time to run. Rare is the gamer whose eyes aren’t bigger than his or her free time, particularly now that gamers my age are getting older, have more and more real-world commitments, and many more significant responsibilities to take their time and attention. Gone are the halcyon days of our late teens and early twenties, when we could devote entire 36 hour periods to orgies of nerdery the likes of which would shame Dr. Sheldon Cooper.
Well, what are a group of adult nerds to do about this? Are we to go silently into our middle age and regretfully pack up our Piles of Shame, resigning ourselves to a period our lives where the gaming is infrequent and mediocre? No! We must establish a plan to stake out our game time! We must requisition basements and attics for our use! Others have their ritual trips to the bar and inviolate Sunday sports sessions–why cannot we gamers have our time? So, to that end, my suggestions for how to address this issue:
Be Realistic: You and your friends are adults with families and jobs and responsibilities. You are not going to be able to spend six hours every single Sunday playing boardgames or RPGs and expect everybody to show up all the time. When planning out RPG campaigns or boardgaming sessions, keep this in mind. Those games that take ten hours to play and require massive amounts of time and attention are going to be difficult to schedule.
Be Specific: When you invite your buddies over to game, have a specific game in mind (e.g. “We are going to play Succession Wars”). Don’t just say ‘games’ or you’ll play either the same old stuff as usual or get caught up in everybody having different interests and never actually agreeing on what game to play (and then you wind up playing the same old game everybody can agree on).
Plan In Advance: You can’t really call up your buddies on a Friday night and expect them to be free Saturday afternoon. Plan a week or two in advance or have a fixed schedule that everybody’s aware of (‘the first Friday of every month’ or ‘every other Sunday afternoon’), and that way people are more likely to be able to make it.
Be There: If you say you’re going to go, go. Make it a priority. Yes, it comes in behind work and family, but don’t blow off one social engagement (which is what games are) for another social engagement. Barring rare exceptions, blowing off your gaming buddies to go drinking with your work buddies is pretty insulting on the one hand and takes away from the enjoyment the rest of the gamers will derive from the game on the other. Blowing people off is especially rude in the case of RPGs, where, in most cases, your presence is required to play your character and the lack of your character can derail whole adventures.
Keep Your Mate in the Loop: For those of you who are married or in long-term relationships, make certain you let your girlfriend/boyfriend or whatever know when you are gaming and where and so on. Let them know that this is important to you and your friends (even if they think it’s stupid themselves), and you’d really like to make it. Provided your spouse is a decent person who values your wishes, doing this kind of thing will prevent unfortunate double-bookings that prevent you from Being There. Also make clear that he/she has the ability to override gaming time if something obviously more important comes up (this includes things like illness, sudden familial obligations, etc., etc.). I could go on, but I’ll stop here, as we are starting to delve into me giving people relationship advice, and this blog is not the place.
There are other tricks, too–setting up RPG campaigns with rotating character rosters that don’t require the same people to be there every time, for instance, or playing board games that have short play times, and so on. Those five rules, though, ought to make it so that you can enjoy gaming well off into your golden years where, presumably, your time will free up all over again.
Retirement homes of the 2050s are going to be goddamned gamer paradises, I kid you not.
So, I just got a rejection letter for a story I submitted to Analog. This, in and of itself, is unexceptional (sadly) and part and parcel of this whole ‘trying to be a successful writer’ thing. What made it interesting to me, though, was the list of things they tag onto the bottom of their form letter. Ordinarily these lists are comprised of somewhat disingenuous reminders of what makes a bad story (i.e. a list of most common reasons why they reject things) and they are typically quite uninformative for someone who knows their way around plot, character, and the genre in general. This one, though, had a peculiar one that had me scratching my head. It went like this:
—Science fiction readers are problem solvers! Stories with downbeat endings, in which the characters have no hope of solving their problems, are strongly disliked by Analog readers. In a good SF story, the characters strive to solve their problems—and even if they fail in the end, they go down fighting, not whimpering.
This, to me, basically says ‘we prefer happy endings and victory to tragedy and defeat. If the guy loses, at least make it awesome.’ Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I don’t think so.
Now, I’ve noticed the trend for science fiction stories to end on an upnote before. The one most consistent thing I’ve gleaned from reading the Writers of the Future anthology is that the vast, vast majority of scifi stories end in victory of some kind – occasionally bittersweet, but consistently upbeat in some fashion. This note on my rejection letter left me wondering ‘is this a thing?’
Yes, it is a Thing
I’ve spent a bit too much time this morning trying to think of science fiction titles with downbeat endings – tragedies, in other words. I generally think of scifi as a genre that lends itself to the grim and dark but, the more I thought about it, the more I started to see my error. Think for a second: how many downbeat scifi titles that end ’negatively’ can you name? Here’s my list:
- The Planet of the Apes
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers
- The Sparrow
- A Canticle For Lebowitz (sort of)
And…hmmmm…nothing much else. Even those are a stretch.
Granted, I’m definitely missing a few in that list, but if you go down the list of the darkest, most depressing scifi stories ever and you’ll still get the upbeat ending, nine times out of ten. Terminator? John Connor wins! Aliens? The Aliens are always defeated eventually. Zombie Apocapypses? 99% of the time the last band of survivors finds a cure, escapes from trouble, or what have you. Even Children of Men, one of the darkest, most dismal scifi universes ever, has the woman with the last child escape England and vanish into the mist – that, my friends, is hope.
What’s up with that?
What is Up With This
I suppose this trend isn’t unique to science fiction – most stories in any genre end happily somehow. They might be troubled victories, but the protagonist seldom loses, seldom sees his plans thwarted, seldom finds his efforts futile. I guess, on some level, we all like to think that the happy ending is out there for all of us, no matter how terrible things look. Alien brain slugs might be eating our neighbors, but we, dammit, are going to find a way to survive.
Part of this also might have something to do with science itself. Science is an inherently positive discipline in some ways, or at least it is perceived as such. We like to think of it as constantly striding forward, fixing problems, uncovering truths. Such a glorious and wonderous discipline cannot lead to tragedy! Why, that would mean we, humanity, were fundamentally wrong about something, and we can’t have that. Oh no no no! We dare not even think of such things!
Is this a Bad Thing?
I am a big believer in the power of tragedy, myself. My natural predilection is for my stories to have at least partially tragic endings. It has taken a surprising amount of effort on my part to pull myself away from that habit, and I am stuck asking myself sometimes why I’m trying so hard.
A good tragedy isn’t depressing, it’s somehow fulfilling. It’s like a meal – it sticks to your ribs, makes you think about it for months afterwards. They can hurt your heart, but it’s a good kind of hurt; it’s the kind that makes you realize you’ve grown somehow. You’ve understood something that a victorious ending might not have illuminated. You’ve grown.
Now, I’m not saying every single thing I read or write should end sadly – far from it - but I am suggesting that, if this is a stipulation of the genre, we ought to bend it a bit, if not break it outright. Not every tale of our future selves ends well; we should be courageous and willing enough to explore that.
So, a bunch of rich guys have finally gotten around to trying to mine asteroids.
I say ‘finally’ because I sort of felt this was inevitable. Sooner or later I knew that forward thinking, stupidly rich people with nothing else to spend their gobs of money on would try investing in outer space for profit. This seems the most likely first step towards actually colonizing space. That said, I very sincerely think these guys are going to lose their shirts over this venture. They are going to manage to mine the most expensive iron ore in the history of the world in the hopes that they’ll find platinum. You watch.
That, though, isn’t the point. The point is that this is the beginning of an exciting, new phase in our species’ history (I hope). Companies like this one and SpaceX are blazing the way for a new era of colonization, but powered by private interests, not governments. There is precedent for this, remember: The British East India Company colonized India for their own profit, not for the glory of Britain. The settlers at Jamestown were likewise looking to make a quick buck. Chris Columbus crossed the ocean blue looking for spices and gold, not fame, and it was his desire for glory and wealth that made him wheedle the money for the trip out of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain.
All it’s going to take for the colonization of our solar system to take off is for somebody, somehow, someway to find profit out there in the Big Empty. Then everybody will be chomping at the bit to get out there. The technology, if it isn’t developed, will get developed. If that happens then, finally, thankfully, perhaps this planet will make it past this particular stage of exploratory stagnation. That, my friends, will be a really exciting time. Science Fiction made fact. New social dynamics, new cultures born outside the gravity well, and, of course, space pirates.
We all want space pirates. Admit it.
If you’ve played a role playing game, be it tabletop, video, or pen-and-paper, odds are you’ve adventured in a dungeon. We all know, essentially, what those things entail: various rooms, random monsters, the odd trap, and heaps of treasure. You and your intrepid buddies tramp around these places methodically, as though shopping at the mall, hoovering up whatever gold and silver and so on you can lay your grubby mitts upon, and then leave satisfied. It’s like an Easter Egg Hunt, except with more magical swords and many fewer dyed, hard-boiled eggs.
In general, I find the average dungeon experience lacking. I’ve discussed this before when describing one of my personal favorite dungeons of my design. To quote myself:
Dungeons have a problem. They are, in their most commonly encountered form, a concept much better executed in a video game than in a pen-and-paper role-playing game. The reason for this is pretty simple: there is no conflict. That’s right–no conflict. There is no doubt that the PCs are going to scour the dungeon for all the wealth they can find. There is no doubt that the monsters encountered within are going to try to kill/eat them. Everybody is equipped to handle the problem, on both sides, and their tactics are mostly already in place. Everybody knows their job, is ready to do it, and the only thing that really matters is how the dice fall.
As mentioned in that article, I like dungeons to have some drama to them. In order to have that drama, they need a story.
When putting together a dungeon, I try to make everything fit within a certain set of themes or motifs, sort of like a wedding planner, but with knives and poison gas traps rather than doilies and name cards. The worst thing to do in a dungeon is to just slap something in there for the hell of it. You aren’t making a video game level when designing a dungeon (and one of the reasons I generally dislike video game RPGs is because of the following); you are placing a ‘real’ structure inside the fabric of a ‘real’ world and it needs to mesh with and fit into that reality. If the dungeon is infested with hordes and hordes of giant rats, you need to ask yourself the question “why are there so many rats hanging around here, anyway?” This should be followed up by “what do the rats eat?” and “how did they get here in the first place?”
These questions may seem immaterial to you, but they really aren’t. In the first place, your players are probably going to ask such questions at some point, and having an answer is infinitely better than saying ‘they just *are*, okay?’ Furthermore, exploring the answers to these questions adds to the depth of the dungeon itself (and I mean depth in the dramatic sense, rather than the physical one) and can give you much more compelling and interesting things to have your players encounter and do when within them.
To state more directly what I’m getting at, we can probably agree generally that dungeons are made up of four elements: rooms, traps, monsters, and treasure. Let’s take a look at each one and discuss the storytelling potential inherent within them.
By ‘rooms’, I mean ‘the physical layout of the dungeon’. Is it underground? Underwater? At the top of a mountain? In the sewers of a major city? Is it an old castle? A new castle? A not-yet-finished castle? Whichever of these things you pick has a profound impact on what can reasonably be found within its confines. It is extremely unlikely, for instance, that you’ll find a dragon living in a city sewer or a tribe of cannibals living in a sky-castle. Why? Well, how did they get there? What will they eat while there? Can the dragon even manage to leave?
Furthermore, you won’t find a lot of secret passages made of stone inside a wooden tree fort, just like you probably won’t find a lot of death traps in places where lots of creatures actually live (seriously, why would you make a home in a place where poison darts are likely to shoot you at any time). The type of place and when it was built indicates the kind of technology that will go into the building. Ancient ruins won’t have the latest elevator systems (unless they’re one of those super-sophisticated lost civilizations), while it would seem odd for the evil vampire’s state-of-the-art floating fortress to not use any kind of waterwheels to run its internal systems.
Figuring out the physical design of the dungeon is the starting point for your story surrounding that same dungeon. Why was it built? How did it get here? Is it still fulfilling its original purpose? If not, why not? How has it been altered? Why? What effect has that had on its layout?
Traps should be based upon the nature of the layout and rooms, as described above. They also should be used sparingly (there are only so many traps players want to spend time evading, and they never really want to solve the same trap more than once) and should be bound by some reasonable laws of physics. If you’ve got dart guns, can they reload themselves? How? Can that be interfered with? How is a trap set off? Why was it put here? Remember: traps are dangerous things for more than just the players themselves and, in most cases, the people or things that designed this dungeon didn’t expect the players to infiltrate specifically (well, it’s possible, but unlikely). That means the builders had reason and rationales for putting in the traps they did. If this is a vault, they obviously would want a way to bypass the traps so they can access said vault. If this is a tomb, they aren’t going to build in a self-destruct device (the tomb is a holy place, after all). Nobody’s going to put a firebomb trap in their fancy wooden villa. Nobody’s going to shell out the money to put a shark pit in the middle of a desert pyramid without a very good reason.
Traps, also, should be used as dramatic elements in some way. They should complicate the plot by introducing tension or conflict either among the players themselves or between them and some enemy. If you don’t plan on using a trap this way and rather merely intend to make it a simple physical obstacle to roll dice at, then why include it at all? If you set up a land mine, the intention of that land mine is to injure or kill a member of the party (likely injure) so that the rest of the party will need to make a decision on how to deal with their injured friend (this kind of trap, incidentally, works best in systems where there are penalties to action for being injured).
To my mind, dungeons should usually either involve traps OR monsters, and seldom both. If it does involve both, the monsters should have some kind of reliable way of avoiding the traps because, as mentioned above, few creatures want to live in a place where they might die in a deadfall trap if they roll over while asleep and, furthermore, if they aren’t intelligent enough to care, most of them will probably be destroyed by traps before the PCs ever need to stick swords into them.
With the possible exception of the undead, golem, and other non-living constructs, keep in mind that monsters are alive. As such, they need food, water (probably), a place to sleep, and mostly won’t be content to remain trapped within this secret dungeon forever and ever. This means that either the design of the dungeon needs to be altered to accommodate the creature living there (dragons need a big door, for instance), or the creatures need to be designed to fit with the dungeon. Also, monsters should behave in keeping with their intelligence. The aforementioned giant rats, for instance, will likely be disinclined to fight with armored humans for long, if at all, and particularly not if they start waving around scary magicks. That doesn’t mean they can’t provide dramatic complications (a squealing rat stampede, for instance, could start a fire or wake up an actually nasty monster), but nobody is going to have their legs gnawed off by twenty pound rats.
Intelligent creatures, conversely, won’t be content to stay in their ‘room’ to wait for the enemy to come to them, necessarily. It’s their dungeon–they know their way around, probably. They’ll move. They’ll set ambushes. They’ll avoid trouble. The frost giant in his ice castle probably has a pen full of hungry polar bears he can release at intruders and he’s likely to go and release them, if he can, as soon as he hears humans trashing his foyer.
Finally, treasure should be comprised of those things that would actually be kept in the dungeon in question. In some cases (sewers, for instance) there will be precious little of value. Nobody foraging through a sewer should expect to find the crown jewels; if they do, there’s a story there. The GM should pursue it somehow.
Treasure is valuable, and most valuable things belong or belonged to someone. Someone fashioned it for a purpose, put it here for a reason, and so on. This is partially the reason why cursed items make no damned sense (why would you keep the sword that stabs *you* instead of the bad guys?) unless set up for a reason, often as a kind of trap (think the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
There’s a lot of dramatic potential in treasure, and it shouldn’t be squandered.
Overall, there is enormous dramatic potential in dungeons, but it is too often not exploited because we GMs are too lazy to bother making something cool out of it. Give the place a story, set up plots related to the dungeon itself, create conflicts that reveal character rather than render it irrelevant. Mix the procedural with the dramatic.
The air was hot and thick with ash; the shetl had burned easily, even without gasoline. Obersturmfuhrer Werner Stolik was pleased with this – the army was moving quickly through the wide open steppes of Russia, and gasoline was becoming increasingly difficult to replace. Bullets, too; he’d ordered the villagers to be bayoneted, to avoid further wastage.
All in all, things would be going smoothly and this little errand for his superiors would be resounding success, save for one small hiccup. It was a ridiculous thing, honestly, but the SS didn’t deal in loose ends and somebody somewhere down the line has screwed up. That person’s name was Untersharfuhrer Marcus Dantrich, and presently Stolik was off to fix whatever mess the idiot sergeant had gotten himself into.
It was amazing to Stolik how easy it was to lose men in the steppe. He didn’t mean casualties – he’d barely had any of those – but rather the literal meaning of “lose”. The broad, flat, open plains could somehow swallow you and, if you wandered too far and didn’t keep a keen eye on your compass, you’d be as lost as any sailor at sea. Stolik had sent Dantrich off on patrol with three men to try and round up any of the villagers who had tried to slip off. They hadn’t come back.
They were stormtroopers – SS – the Fuhrer’s finest. Stolik had every confidence they were fine, but they were almost certainly lost, and they needed to be found. Losing men in Russia reflected poorly upon one’s service record, and Stolik had every intention of keeping his record spotless.
Five paces in front of him, their local guide stopped walking. Stolik drew his Luger. “What? Why have you stopped?”
The man was a skinny, stoop shouldered Jew, shirtless, sweating, stinking of fear. He pointed ahead of them, where a small wood could be seen looming in the orange haze of the smoke-filled air; the trees were bare, straight and black, like charred bones. “Your men are in there.” He mumbled in imperfect Russian.
Stolik straightened his jacket and looked at the two men he had with him, grinning. “So this is where the fearsome wizard lives, is it?”
The guide nodded, clutching a pouch to his chest. “The koldun, yes. If your men did not come back, this is why.” He turned to the three soldiers. “Please, I have shown you – let me go now?”
Stolik chuckled; his men followed suit. Typical Jew behavior, he thought – trying to dodge out of a tough situation. “And be robbed of your fine introduction of this no-doubt powerful and respectable old man?”
The man’s shoulders somehow managed to sag even lower. When Stolik motioned with his Luger, the man turned and kept walking.
Stolik glanced at his two men and gave orders in German. “Expect some kind of trick.” They nodded, and readied their MP40 submachine guns. The sound of them working the slides made their guide stiffen, but he kept walking, never looking back.
The forest swallowed them. In a matter of moments there was no sign of where it had begun or where it ended; just the silent, black trunks of the pines on all sides. It was so quiet that Stolik found himself clearing his throat just to confirm he could still hear. Their footsteps were engulfed by the loose soil at their feet, leaving only vague depressions behind them. There was something dreamlike about it all; it was as though they were only partially there.
The guide stopped again, shuddering visibly.
“What is it now, filth?” Stolik barked. He came up behind the man, figuring the feeling of a pistol pressed against his bony spine might motivate him.
At the guide’s feet was a thin, white line, perhaps two inches wide, that was comprised of some kind of granular powder. It stretched off in either direction, curving away into the fiery haze of the silent, dead wood. “Is that salt?” Stolik asked, nudging it with his toe.
The jew convulsed, as though Stolik had touched a live electrical wire. He quickly stuffed his hand in the crude pouch he carried and sprinkled more salt atop the part Stolik has smudged. When he finished, he hung his head. “Please…please, do not touch the seal. For your own sakes. For all our sakes.”
Stolik scowled. He seized the man by the chin and pulled his face upwards until they locked eyes. “I am not the one in danger here, Jew.” Pointedly, and without looking away from the thin face of his prisoner, Stolik brushed his foot back and forth across the salt line until he’d made a substantial gap. “Your weakling superstitions do not concern me. Lead on or die here.”
The guide was corpse pale, but also too broken and cowardly to show any defiance. He stepped gingerly over the salt and kept going. His feet dragged, though – perhaps from terror, perhaps from emotional and physical exhaustion. He’d been digging graves most of the morning. Stolik imagined it would be easiest to shoot him here when their business was concluded. Whatever that business was.
The two soldiers with Stolik followed along, but he could tell they were getting nervous. “Herr Oberst,” one mumbled behind him, “This is supposed to just be a single old man, right?”
Stolik grunted. “Yes, yes, but so what if it’s half a dozen? Unless this rat is leading us to some idiotically placed Soviet tank or machine gun nest, I’m not concerned. Show a little backbone, soldier.”
They walked on a short way further before the little hut emerged, squat and black in the weird half-light. The guide stopped as soon as he saw it, frozen with some provincial, superstitious dread that made Stolik’s lip curl. He ignored the guide – it was clear enough they were where they were supposed to be. “Don’t go anywhere.” He growled at the man as he passed him by.
The first thing Stolik’s eyes resolved out of the haze were the bodies – four of them. Three German soldiers, their bodies bent and warped into unnatural positions before the darkened doorway of the shack. Stolik didn’t need to check to see that they were dead; how he couldn’t guess, but now was not the time. His nostrils flared at the scent of blood. He was glad his pistol was already drawn.
The fourth body was that of an old man, naked. It looked as though it had been dead for some time or, possibly, embalmed at some point in the recent past. It was small, pale, skeletally thin, its mouth fixed into a rictus grin beneath milky white eyeballs. For reasons Stolik couldn’t quite justify to himself, this body was riddled with bulletholes. It was missing a leg beneath the knee, an arm above the elbow, and its chest was perforated with at least seven or eight other direct hits. There was no blood that he could see.
Stolik pointed at the dead old man and shouted at the guide. “Is that the sorcerer? Is that your koldun?”
The Jew was trembling uncontrollably now, crouched upon the ground, his fingers awkwardly pawing at the bag of salt he’d stubbornly clung to all this time. Beneath his breath, he kept muttering the words ‘eretnik’ and ‘nechistaia sila’ as well as a variety of things in Yiddish. Stolik’s Russian wasn’t good enough to translate.
He turned back to the hut. “Dantrich! Are you in there? Dantrich, it’s Stolik! Come out!”
“Dantrich isn’t here, Herr Oberst.” A man stepped out of the darkened doorway, clad in a heavy holocaust cloak with a deep hood. His voice was heavy, cold, and flat, like a piece of slate. He spoke perfect German.
Stolik pointed his luger at the stranger. “Are you the wizard?”
“I am the koldun. My name is Vitaly Khostov. You are tresspassing.”
Stolik opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by the piercing sob of the guide, who was now hurriedly pouring salt all around himself. He kept muttering ‘eretnik, eretnik.’ What did that mean? Heretic? Was this some kind of religious nonsense among Jews?
“You have burned the shetl.” Khostov announced.
“What happened to my men?” Stolik barked.
Khostov shrugged. “I killed them.”
Stolik glanced at the bodies. “How?”
Khostov’s laugh was mirthless. “Does it really matter?”
The wretch had a point. Stolik shot him in the chest; the pistol’s sharp report didn’t echo.
Khostov jerked with the impact, but he did not fall or cry out. He instead took a step closer to Stolik. “Your fellows did the same thing, you know. You Germans – utterly lacking in creativity.”
This time Stolik’s shots were joined with those of both soldiers, their MP40s rattling off rounds into the koldun’s chest, legs, and arms. Now, however, Khostov didn’t move slowly. In the blink of an eye, he was standing before one soldier, his body bending awkwardly from the ruin the bullets were making of his torso. He – it – seemed to convulse, and a gout of gore vomited from beneath the hood and covered the Nazi stormtrooper. The soldier fell to the ground, screaming and clawing at his face as though being burned.
The other soldier charged, swinging his weapon like a club. Khostov caught the gun by the barrel, wrenched it from his hands, and then struck the stormtrooper hard enough that Stolik heard his neck break from the impact. He fell to the ground like a sack of flour.
The clearing was suddenly quiet; Stolik realized that he was pulling the trigger on an empty pistol. Click…click…click.
The Russian wizard paused a moment to…straighten his broken body into something somewhat more upright. There was a couple visceral pops and a squelching noise.
Stolik couldn’t move. Somewhere behind him he could hear the jew, moaning some prayer in Yiddish. All he could manage was, “You…black… black sorcery!”
Khostov came closer, moving with slow, fluid steps. It seemed as though he were floating above the ground. “All sorcery is black sorcery, Herr Oberst. It is a power we inherit from God, but that we use without His consent.”
Stolik sank to his knees. “You can kill me, but we will crush you anyway. One panzer will crush your miserable hut; you will die screaming.”
“Do you know why you Nazis will fail?” Khostov stopped in front of Stolik’s paralyzed, kneeling body and crouched down. “You think that death is the worst thing that can happen to a person.”
One blood-soaked hand emerged from the holocaust cloak and pulled back the hood. Stolik found himself, eye-to-eye, with the smiling face of Marcus Dantrich. Stolik tried to scream, but something was choking off his speech. He clawed his throat, but there was nothing there. He was suffocating, but his body refused to breathe. The world began to dim.
“Do not worry, Herr Oberst, Mother Russia will teach your people about what is worst of all things.” Khostov/Dantrich smiled, his teeth a broken ruin of blood and gore. “And it will be a long, long lesson.”
The world narrowed to a tunnel around the koldun’s face. The last thing Stolik saw were the corpses of his fallen men, rising up from the earth.
Two words: The Moon.
Think about all of our problems, as a species: overpopulation, pollution, climate change, wealth inequality. The moon can solve all of these problems. No, seriously. Check it out:
The moon has an area of 14.6 million miles. This is about a third the size of Asia (which is pretty damned big) and, given its complete lack of weather systems, no environment to ruin, and low gravity, building there isn’t such a huge problem. Colonies on the moon would have access to some water indigenous to the surface and, while scant, could be sufficient to support bases or perhaps a few colonies. Yes, this won’t solve all of the Earth’s overpopulation problems, but it could serve as a waystation to colonies even further out in the solar system, spreading humanity’s reach and, therefore, giving it more room to expand.
The moon would make a kick-ass dump. Millions of square miles of airless, dusty, barren rock upon which to dump all the nastiest, foulest, most dangerous chemicals and junk the human race can produce. Hell, if you organize it right, you could just shoot the trash to the moon in rockets made of more trash. So long as you can reliably hit, oh, say a 10,000 square mile patch of the moon (which shouldn’t be that hard), you don’t even need people there to supervise. Fire and forget, and that trash is never going to bother the Earth again.
Furthermore, moving various heavy industry to the moon wouldn’t be such a bad idea, either, since ‘air pollution’ needs ‘air’ to pollute. Of course you’d have the issue of having the workforce present, but aren’t we moving towards automated factories, anyway? Provided we can reliably get to the moon and back (which is something that all of this argument is predicated upon), this would make our planet significantly cleaner without really affecting the moon in any negative way that matters.
As indicated, the moon has no climate. You can’t change it, and you could conceivably ‘outsource’ activities that do change our climate up there. The big culprit–fossil fuel and power plant waste–would still exist here, but with more responsible ways of disposing of nuclear waste and batteries (i.e. on the moon), we can see a surge in more green technologies.
Hmmmm…okay, I lied. The moon doesn’t solve this problem. Of course it does make our own inequity a bit cleaner and less crowded, right? Maybe?
Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating a bit here, but still, it deserves some thought. The moon is the closest and largest piece of unoccupied real estate in the galaxy, and it’s just sitting there, literally staring us in the face. We’ve even been there! There’s just no excuse for the human race not to find some kind of use for it. None at all.
Dear Mr Toppumhat,
Like everybody here on the island, I am a frequent patron and user of our extensive train system. While I have certain reservations about the sheer number of tracks laid across our relatively small island (they do have cars now, you know, and I’d like to be able to ride a bicycle occasionally without having to lose fillings while bumping over tracks), in general the presence of the train lines makes life more convenient. Or would, perhaps, were it not for those stupid damned trains.
I realize that having autonomous, artificially intelligent trains is both extremely cutting edge and a draw for tourist dollars, but I for one am tired of having my livelihood depend upon the random and often childish acts of computerized trains with the emotional maturity of five-year-olds. It doesn’t matter one button how many stupid tourists our island gets if the damned trains they ride decide that it would be ‘more fun’ to take them to see the ironworks instead of stopping at my fruit stand. Do you have any idea, sir, how important that fruit stand is to paying my bills? I swear, the next time Toby cruises by my farm with that stupid grin on his creepy, latex face while taking my customers on some stupid joy ride they neither want nor need, I am going to spike the damned rails. See that I won’t! It isn’t as though the damned trains don’t derail themselves all the time for God knows what juvenile reason. I swear I saw Thomas playing chicken with Gordon - chicken! - over some schoolyard disagreement over who was bluer. There are people’s lives at stake, you fat dimwit!
Here’s an idea, you bloated technophile: rather than treating our island (and our home) as some sort of high-tech playground for your stunted AI trains, why don’t we do what the rest of the world does and get some normal trains that are piloted by actual people? Do you have any idea what the unemployment rate is here on the Isle? Think of all the jobs that would be available if we took those creepy robot engines and sold their positronic brains for scrap and then hired skilled laborers to replace them. Derailments would go down, schedules would be kept, and that stupid tow-truck at the iron works would drive at a reasonable pace and would stop accidentally lobbing railroad ties across town. Old Lady Martin’s China Shop is still trying to recover from that time what’s-his-name got over excited and dropped a half-ton boiler through her roof.
Think of the peace, quiet, and consistency of our rails if we were to finally rid ourselves of those ten-ton mechanical toddlers. They’d stop tooting at my chickens for no good reason (I can’t remember the last time I had fresh eggs), they’d stop lollygagging around as they sort out their petty emotional problems (for once I’d get to market on time), and I’d wager that 100% fewer cars filled with VIPs would get covered with soot because Edward has some kind of hissy fit over the quality of his paint.
You can swear me off as some grouchy old man if you like, Toppumhat, but I’m not alone on this island. Shape things up, or we’ll see about finding someone who will.
Amos Trotter, Farmer
The world is a frustrating place. There are times, when in the midst of shaking my fist in rage at some perceived inequity, that I wish I had the god-like force to make things right. At these times, I am prone to mutter “If I had an army of the undead…”
Let’s face it: once you get past the ‘ick’ factor, there are few underlings more reliable than the undead. Granted, they aren’t much for improvisation or abstract thought, but they follow orders, they require relatively little upkeep (you know, provided you get the ones that don’t eat brains), are hard workers, and are even recyclable, provided you’re a necromancer of passing talent.
See, I don’t think of the undead as some inherently evil plague to be visited upon mankind. The dead are just dead–they don’t hate the living or wish to destroy life or anything. Dead things have no opinions; they are precisely as good or as bad as their master makes them be. Just imagine if you could marshal a large force of undead minions and put them to work for the public good! Think of it: legions of brightly clad, well-perfumed skeletal creatures on every street corner, insuring public safety and guarding the public trust. Ahhhh…utopia.
Here would be some of the tasks to which my army of undead would be routinely assigned:
- An auxiliary of zombies clad in flame-resistant shrink wrap would be on hand for the fire department to dispatch into burning buildings judged too dangerous for living firefighters to enter. Rescues would go up, firefighter injuries would go down!
- Much of the staff of the MBTA (bus routes excepted) could be quickly and easily replaced by skeletons with, I imagine, little notable loss in the quality of service.
- I would employ wraiths and other ethereal creatures to serve warrants and pursue fugitives. The odds of folks running when they know the cold, dead hand of death is liable to follow them would be rather low, I imagine.
- Need a lot of volunteers to systematically search an area for a missing person or body? Hmmmm…I seem to have a couple thousand zombies sitting around with nothing better to do…
- Disaster relief? Well, seems to me my legions of skeletons can carry plenty of water and supplies just about anywhere, given enough time. They don’t mind much if they’re getting electrocuted by downed power lines or covered over by sewage-filled water.
- Bomb squads suddenly have anthropomorphic bomb-defusers that can be commanded via remote. If the bomb goes off, who cares?
- Need Witness Protection? Want to secure your property from vandals? Want to scare the crap out of those punks painting swastikas on your synagogue? Boy, have I got the ghouls for you!
Sure, sure, I can hear all the negative nellies now–something is bound to go wrong! What if the dead get hungry? Stuff and nonsense. I know exactly what I’m doing, okay? Nothing is going to go wrong, and when a zombie pulls you out of your burning car wreck because I had thoughtfully stationed a team of them on the shoulder of the Mass Pike, picking up litter, you can thank me later.
(Or, for that matter, you can thank your Great Aunt Patrice, whose corpse I reanimated and put to work)
My daughter received an Easter present from my sister the other day–the movie Hop. First off, this was a very nice gift and my daughter (who is two) thoroughly enjoyed the bunnies and chicks and action sequences. My wife and I, however, having now seen the movie twice now in as many days, have been left with a rather confounding question: Who on Earth thought this movie was a good idea?
Hop occupies that weird non-space between so-called ‘children’s movies’ and those intended for adults. It is visually and thematically geared towards kids (or so they tell themselves) but includes enough ‘adult’ comedy to keep parents from wanting to kill themselves every time they see the movie. The problem with this, however, is two fold:
- Children don’t need their movies to be stupid for them to enjoy them or to find them worthwhile. A good children’s movie is a good movie, full stop. I need only gesture vaguely in the direction of Pixar Studios to prove my point.
- Adults do not enjoy being pandered to. They enjoy it even less than children, believe it or not.
So, you know, when we adults watch a grown man trying to become the Easter Bunny (yes, you read that right), we do not find it amusing. It is disturbingly bizarre.
In brief, the movie is about a perpetually unemployed young man who, through serendipity, meets the runaway son of the Easter Bunny, EB, who has come to Hollywood to become a drummer. However, while the Easter Bunny frets over the disappearance of his son, Carlos, the chief chick in the Easter Bunny’s workshop, stages a coup to overthrow the Easter Bunny, only to be thwarted by EB and the young man, who has now realized his lifelong dream is to actually be the Easter Bunny. In the end, both EB and Fred (the guy) become co-Easter Bunnies and Fred finally earns the respect of his overbearing father (which is, perhaps, the weirdest scene in a movie I’ve seen in a long time).
If I’m giving the movie far, far more credit than it deserves, we can maybe see it as a postmodern deconstruction of the holiday movie. It is, beat for beat, the basic plot of dozen Christmas movies, except applied to a holiday that enjoys nowhere near the same popular support, interest, or mythology. Thus separated from our childhood nostalgia, the movie seems crass, empty, and downright weird, even though it’s the same story as the ‘heartwarming’ Santa Clause or Elf.
In order to make it ‘palatable’ to adults, it features the comic stylings of Russel Brand as the voice of EB. While I have nothing against Russel Brand, most of the time I find myself asking the question ‘when did Russel Brand become a thing?’ while the CGI bunny talks like the Artful Dodger. (I have concluded, by the way, the Russel Brand became a thing because somebody saw him walking down the road and said “Is that Captain Jack Sparrow?”, and the rest, as they say, is history.) The movie isn’t funny, mostly because it’s trying so hard to be, and because Russel Brand seems to be the only person trying to tell jokes; the movie is, for some bizarre reason, a Russel Brand vehicle. And this is presumably a long time after everybody realized he isn’t really Captain Jack Sparrow.
In the end, though, the real reason why Hop exists is because of money. It began, as most evil things do, in the head of some marketing specialist at a major movie studio. The question was asked ‘why aren’t there any kids movies about Easter?’ and the answer was ‘because everybody else thought it was a stupid idea.’ Millions of dollars in sales, however, is never stupid, and so the producers went to their rolodex to find a bunch of people not proud enough to turn down the money they would be offered to write a ridiculous movie about an easter bunny coming to America.
Perhaps I hear you sneering at those writers (and actors, and director) who dared to make Hop, but shame on you. These people are trying to make a living, so leave them alone. I was in a screenwriting class once, wherein we were asked to explain to the professor (himself a well-respected screenwriter) what movies we had seen over the past week. In this class I was surrounded by film snobs who went out of their way to point out the edgy, fancy, artistically challenging films they’d seen. Me, I typically watched whatever happened to be on basic cable when I was sitting in front of the TV, and one week I had watched Anaconda. When I told my professor this, I could hear the skin tightening on my classmate’s faces as they sneered. My professor, though, said this: ”I know the guy who wrote Anaconda. He’s a good friend of mine.”
“Really?” I figured he was putting me on, or that I was about to lose a lot of respect for the man right then and there.
My professor then told me a story, and it went like this: Once you get a certain number of successful movies made in Hollywood as a writer, your name goes in a rolodex (or now, I suppose, smartphone) on a producer’s desk. When they want a movie made based off their marketing data, they call somebody in that rolodex. So, when the news that a giant snake picture was due came to a certain producer’s desk, they called the professor’s friend (call him ‘Bob’) on a Friday afternoon.
Producer: “Hey, Bob, I need a giant snake picture!”
Bob: “Errr…I don’t have any giant snake…”
Producer: “We’ll pay you $25,000.”
Bob: “Giant Snake picture, coming right up!”
By Monday morning, Anaconda was sitting on the producer’s desk. Bob bought a boat.
BTW, Hop made 38.1 million dollars on its opening weekend. Just sayin’.