The Alexandrian

Archive for the ‘Fiction’ category

The most recent trailer for Fox’s latest attempt at a Fantastic Four movie has successfully convinced me to NOT watch it in the theaters. The trailers seem really dedicated to the idea of selling this new film as being virtually identical to the 2005 film, which I consider somewhat baffling considering the almost complete failure of that film. (The only thing I liked about it were the family dynamics, particularly those between the Human Torch and Ben Grimm.)

Doctor DoomThis also caused me to ruminate on the difficulty movie and TV studios seem to have in adapting Doctor Doom. A common refrain is that you can’t just put the bad guy in a face-covering mask, which prompts a wide variety of efforts to work around that “problem”. This is also something I find baffling. (And I can see that Darth Vader agrees with me, because he’s scratching his helmet.)

I also note that it’s become quite fashionable to give Doctor Doom superpowers, usually by linking his “origin” to the same accident that creates the Fantastic Four. This doesn’t baffle me (I can see the appeal of narrative conservation that motivates the decision), but it’s nevertheless wrong, in my opinion, because it undermines the contrast between Doom’s approach to power and Reed Richards’ approach to power (which also, of course, echoes their approach to science). It also tends to result in creators conflating Doom’s experimental error (which results in his face becoming scarred) with Richards’ experimental error (which results in the creation of the FF), which is another huge mistake: If Richards is responsible, then Doom’s rage towards him is justified. If Doom is responsible, Richards no longer bears the burden of what he’s done to his family. And, in either case, you lose the (often-overlooked) thematic contrast between how Richards and Doom reacted to their failures.

In any case, I suspect that the new Fantastic Four franchise isn’t going to work out. Which I suspect means that about 5-10 years from now we’ll see either Fox or Disney trying to reboot the franchise again. That gave me cause to consider how I would adapt the FF to film. And it also made me think about how you could do justice to Doctor Doom (particularly because he’ll have been fairly significantly screwed up twice at that point).

I think the key is to realize that Doctor Doom is the evil Iron Man: He’s a scientific and engineering genius with immense resources at his command (as the leader of a small country) and he has a legion of Doombots to do his bidding (which makes the comparison with the MCU Tony Stark particularly appropriate).

So if I was Fox and trying to figure out how to use the Fantastic Four to launch a superhero franchise, the first film I’d greenlight wouldn’t be Fantastic Four. It would be DOCTOR DOOM. The FF wouldn’t even appear in this film (although Reed Richards might appear in flashbacks). This movie basically says, “What if Tony Stark came out of the cave and decided to use his Iron Man suits to conquer the world?” It would be a film about a supervillain in a world with no superheroes. Which means that Doom wins. He wins a lot. By the end of the first movie he basically controls Europe and has declared war on the United States and China simultaneously.

The elevator pitch is: It’s House of Cards in a superhero universe.

It also carries with it the advantage of doing something with superheroes that we haven’t seen in the cinema yet, which will help our hypothetical reboot stand out from both the previous FF failures and the crowded field of other superhero properties.

The second movie is FANTASTIC FOUR. It starts about midway through the first film with Reed Richards working on some top secret project for the U.S. government. As the threat of Doctor Doom grows in Europe, however, Richards’ security clearance is suddenly revoked because it turns out he used to be college roommates with Doom. So Richards — along with Ben, Sue, and Johnny — are forced to sneak back into the research facility and launch the experimental vehicle (which, of course, goes spectacularly wrong and they all get exposed to cosmic rays). And so now, about midway through this film, you’ve got a superhero team who can go up against a supervillain in full ascendance.

Ender's Game - Orson Scott CardHere’s a question I’ve seen come up quite a few times: Is the Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card worth reading? And, if so, should you bother with sequels?

As a young adult, Ender’s Game was one of those books that stuck with you and transformed you and informed everything you read from that point forward in your life. Revisiting the book a few years ago as an adult, it was not quite so utterly mind-blowing, but it was still a really good piece of science fiction and I recommend it highly.

Speaker for the Dead, on the other hand, is one of the best science fiction novels ever written.

So, basically, yes. I enthusiastically recommend these books and I think your life is poorer if you haven’t read them.

With that being said, here’s my recommendation for tackling the Ender-verse:

(1) Start with Ender’s Game and read through the original sequence of novels until you don’t like them any more. Then stop. They aren’t going to get any better.

Ender’s Game
Speaker for the Dead
Xenocide
Children of the Mind

(2) Now, pop over to Ender’s Shadow. Read through this second sequence of novels until you don’t like them any more. Then stop. They are going to get a lot worse very, very quickly.

Ender’s Shadow
Shadow of the Hegemon
Shadow Puppets
First Meetings
Shadow of the Giant
Shadows in Flight

I stopped reading about midway through that sequence, so I don’t have any opinion on the Ender inter-quels:

A War of Gifts: An Ender Story
Ender in Exile

Nor do I have any opinion about the prequel trilogy:

Earth Unaware
Earth Afire
Earth Awakens

But I suspect I’m not missing anything.

Double Helix - Battletech Alterworld

Go to Part 1

This writing sample covers the first part of Chapter One. It was written when I was 16 years old.

CHAPTER ONE

Kalen watched the secondary monitors of his Red Wolf ‘mech, more interested in the tactical information related there than in the dense undergrowth being crushed around him as he moved quickly through the forest.

“Robert, how’s your little Adder holding up?” The Adder-class ‘mech was one of the smallest, and they had lost precious moments earlier when it had become ensnarled in a patch of thorny vines.

“Pretty good, Kale. I’m keeping behind you, using the trail you’re beating down. Anything I’ve got trouble with, Steve helps me out with.”

Steven was off to Kalen’s right, moving along as quickly as possible in his humanoid-Hellbringer. He raised the ‘mech’s hand in a wave of acknowledgment.

Kalen smiled. “All right, we’re going to start bearing northwest now. Keep com silence until my strike order. No need to give away our presence with a stray signal burst.”

“Roger,” the voices of his two lieutenants overlapped on the frequency.

Ten minutes earlier a distress signal had reached Diamond Outpost where Kalen had been scheduled to serve garrison on the weekly rotation cycle. Kalen may have been the Helix Hero of the House of Alcrom, but it didn’t excuse him, or the Guard company he led, from the routine duties of being mechwarriors.

On the north road between the Kolan Heights and Poytr Point an Alcrom weapons convoy had been waylaid by the forces of House Ethaois. Even now, looking above the trees which brushed around his ‘Mech, Kalen could see the ineffective laser blasts of the convoy as it raced along the road away from its pursuers. If he and his Guard didn’t get there soon the convoy would be probably be lost within a matter of minutes.

A harsh tone sounded from his monitors and he twisted his head away from the cockpit’s visual display and back to the secondary screens. A tight line of bright dots had appeared, roving eastward. The convoy!

Simultaneously five more dots — the Ethaois ‘mechs — blinked onto the screen as well. A Sharpshooter and a Wasp were positioned on either side of the road, straddling the convoy. A speedy Hummingbird lagged behind them on the far side of the road from Kalen’s position. Directly behind the convoy, obviously cutting off any form of retreat, was a large Crusader. Further back there was a Quasar, apparently climbing a nearby hill.

Kalen toggled his com unit back on, “Okay guys, looks like we’re not slackers after all. Let’s nab the three closest first. Robert — see if you can keep that Quasar busy; Steve, nail the Wasp. I’ve got the Sharpshooter. We jump in three…two…one…”

At virtually the same moment the three pilots hit their ‘mech’s jump jets and sailed clear of the forest, reaching the apex of their jumps metres above the treetops.

Their actions were not a moment too soon. As the Quasar topped the hill it was climbing, it released a quick volley of LRMs — blasting the road ahead of the convoy into impassable rubble and sending the lead convoy vehicles caroming into the strip of cleared land on either side of the forest way.

Kalen brought his ‘mech down smoothly in the middle of the road. Twisting the torso of his Red Wolf around, he quickly peppered the Sharpshooter with his PPC before the Ethaoin pilot had a chance to react. He quickly checked on his two friends, noting with satisfaction that Steven had already engaged the Wasp and Robert was making his way up the hill towards the Quasar, before turning his attention back to his own opponent.

The Red Wolf‘s PPC hadn’t done more than superficial damage to the Sharpshooter, who was now returning fire — peppering Kalen with a series of short blasts from his shoulder-mounted lasers. In response, Kalen stepped his ‘mech out of the laser blasts for a moment and released a volley of SRMs at his opponent. As he had expected, the Sharpshooter’s pilot activated his anti-missile systems and reduced his barrage to shrapnel, but at least the laser was abated for a moment. Kalen toggled his autocannon and watched with satisfaction as it tore away the armor of the opposing ‘mech.

Unexpectedly the Sharpshooter’s jump jets flared to life, lifting it off the ground and away from Kalen’s fire. Having failed to anticipate his opponent’s action, Kalen pushed hard against his ‘mech’s foot pedals, urging the huge machine into a run, only to feel the ‘mech jerk away from his control as an explosion shook the cockpit.

As the Red Wolf twisted hard, spinning the Sharpshooter off the primary screen, Kalen quickly realized what had happened. The Sharpshooter’s pilot had used his ‘mech’s jump to effectively conceal the launch of a single missile towards Kalen; and Kalen, in his rush to pursue his opponent had ignored the warning signals on his secondary monitors.

Angry with himself for his carelessness, Kalen quickly jabbed at his controls, bringing his ‘mech back under control and swinging his bullet-like torso around to face the position where the Sharpshooter had last been in time to see a wave of LRMs heading towards him.

Instantly his autocannon roared to life, picking the helpless missiles out the air, as he launched his own missiles, but these swept under the Sharpshooter, which had already initiated a second jump to close the distance between them again.

But this time Kalen wasn’t going to give his opponent a chance to conceive a second offensive, instead he raised his ‘mech’s left arm and began firing the laser there. Simultaneously his PPC began to pulse and the missiles held in pods all around the main body of his BattleMech streamed off on chemical propellants.

The Sharpshooter pilot, despite his momentary surprise at the ferocity of Kalen’s assault, managed to emerge relatively unscathed. He managed to destroy the majority of the Red Wolf‘’s missiles before they could strike, and his adept maneuvering lessened the damage which might have been wrought by the PPC. However, the cumulative effect of the attack gained its intended goal – several missiles struck one of his leg joints, and the laser fire found weak spots along the attachment point of his left arm, dropping it – and the anti-missile system it contained – useless to his side.

In Kalen’s cockpit the temperature was soaring and the sweat dripped from his brow, but it barely caught his attention as he launched another volley of missiles against the Sharpshooter.

Without the defenses in its arm the Sharpshooter was helpless against the Red Wolf’s final attack, and Kalen watched as the enemy ‘mech was reduced to a ball of flame. Its destruction gave him a chance to bring his ‘mech to a halt while he took assessment of the battlefield, allowing his heat sinks to laboriously remove the heat build-up he had accumulated so quickly.

To his left Robert had been intercepted by the humanoid Crusader before reaching the Quasar, which still stood passively atop the hill. Robert’s adept handling of the tiny Adder seemed to be keeping the conflict roughly even, but off to Kalen’s right Steven was faring worse. The Hummingbird had moved up in support of the Wasp and their dual assault was seriously wearing down the Hellbringer’s defenses, pushing him farther back into the forest.

Kalen quickly checked his heat levels and, noting that they were back within acceptable levels, started his ‘mech towards Steven’s position. Together the two of them should be able to eliminate the smaller ‘mechs and then join Robert against the Quasar and Crusader.

But before he had even begun to cross the distance, he saw Steven swing his Hellbringer’s torso towards the enemy Wasp and release successive waves of missile at the smaller ‘mech – overpowering it’s weakened autocannon and punching several successful hits through, forcing the pilot to eject before his destabilized fusion plant blew. Even Kalen was able to see the tactical impracticality of the maneuver, however. In focusing his attention on the Wasp Steven had left his ‘Mech’s back open to an undefended assault by the Hummingbird, which now took the advantage and pulverized the Hellbringer unmercifully.

With a final few steps Kalen pulled his Red Wolf within range. Quickly he fired a handful of LRMs at the Ethaoin Hummingbird, hoping to distract the ‘mech from its helpless victim. Even as the missiles began their deadly flight, however, Kalen knew they came too late to save the Hellbringer – already Steven’s ejection seat carried him in a graceful arc away from the exploding remains of his treasured ‘mech.

But even in death the Hellbringer cursed its killer, holding the attention of the Hummingbird’s pilot for a moment too long. Kalen’s first attack struck uncontested even as a second was being launched. The now heavily damaged ‘Mech slowly turned to face his new opponent, slicing Kalen’s second salvo into useless fratricide.

Kalen smiled as he engaged his jump jets, cutting the distance of the fight to within meters as he toggled his LRM system off-line and synched his short-range weapons into the primary controls. The rage of battle now pulsed through his blood, guiding the lethal paces through which he put his ‘Mech.

The Hummingbird fired his own missiles as the Red Wolf descended, but Kalen’s autcannon swatted them almost contemptuously out of the sky before turning its attention to the missile racks below the Hummingbird’s cockpit. As Kalen’s PPC joined in the barrage, the Hummingbird’s pilot seemed to realize what lay in store and ejected mere moments before the missiles exploded in their pods, blasting the ‘mech into a smoldering mass of blackened metal.

The Red Wolf’s barrage snapped off as the Hummingbird exploded, and Kalen swung his ‘Mech around, loping off at a near-run towards the hill where the Quasar still squatted, watching the Adder and Crusader battle in stalemate below it. Like a strutting bird, the Red Wolf mounted the hill and moved quickly to its summit as the Quasar’s pilot turned it to face the newcomer.

A pause came to Kalen’s frenzied action as he crested the hill. He watched as the Quasar he faced turned slowly towards him until the two mighty BattleMechs stood face to face, each in contemplation of the other.

The moment held for too long. Kalen sensed it. It stretched beyond where one pilot or the other should long since have broken it in a fiery hail of death. It was as if a stalemate had settled upon the two. As if some moment where combat could have begun had been passed by, and now both were held in a loop of inaction which might continue forever.

Kalen’s com-unit crackled to life.

“Helix Commander. Halt all offensive action. Withdraw immediately.”

Kalen frowned. The order made no sense. The convoy was not yet secured, and the Helix Guard’s defensive action was proving successful. Why the withdrawal?

“Repeat command.”

“Repeat. This is Diamond Outpost. Halt all offensive operations. Repeat. Halt offensive operations.”

“On who’s authority?” Kalen was grimacing now. This was the work of a bureaucrat who couldn’t stand the loss of the Hellbringer, he was sure of it.

“On the authority of—”

The com-officer’s voice was cut off and Kalen could hear the muted sounds of motion on the other end of the unit before a new voice came onto the channel.

“It’s on my authority, Kalen. Withdraw immediately. I’ll explain everything when you return.”

The voice was soft, mellowed with the wisdom of age, and Kalen knew it well. Lord J’hon. Current ruler of the House of Alcrom. He had long been a friend and mentor to the Helix who now sat in the Red Wolf’s cockpit. Kalen had long trusted his judgment, but he could not accept this.

“Enemy ‘mechs make safe withdrawal is impossible. I—”

Abruptly the jump jets of the Quasar came to life. Kalen cut himself off as his fingers tensed over the controls which would launch his defensive systems, but the Ethaoin ‘mech was receding from him, the jets carrying it down the far side of the hill and away from Kalen.

Simultaneously a second channel came to life on the com-unit.

“Ethaoin Crusader in retreat,” Robert’s voice echoed in Kalen’s cockpit. “Permission to pursue?”

Kalen hesitated for a moment. Then, “Negative. Return to base.”

“What?” Robert’s surprise mirrored his own.

“Return to Diamond Outpost. Kalen out.”

Kalen flicked Robert’s channel off and then spoke again, “Diamond Outpost, I am returning to base.”

He turned his Red Wolf around. He wanted some answers.

FINAL THOUGHTS

My major influence in writing this was Robert Thurston’s Jade Phoenix Trilogy. I was given copies of the trilogy when I visited the Westfield Comics warehouse in the late ’90s and it remains one of my favorite pieces of pulp fiction. (Westfield Comics was the way I used to get my monthly comics as a kid: They’d mail you a catalog. You’d fill out an order form of everything you wanted. And then a big box full of amazing things would arrive on your doorstep. They’re still around and they’re still great people. But I digress.)

My original notes for the novel also include this gem: “It should be a running joke for at least the first few chapters that each chapters starts with ‘WHAT?!’ Kalen asks it in the first chapter, Natasha in the second, and finally Giles in the third.”

(I was apparently also enamored with spelling the word “maneuver” as “manuever”. I’ve corrected it here, but I’m guessing it didn’t exactly endear my pitch to the FASA editor, either.)

Double Helix - Battletech Alterworld

This is one of the dumber things I’ve written. It’s a proposal I wrote to FASA for a Battletech novel at some point between 1996 and 1998. The reason it was dumb is that I was trying to carve out my own little niche of the Battletech universe when, with the benefit of age and hindsight, I can see that there was zero chance that FASA would be interested in doing that.

The reason I’m posting it here is because it was obliquely referenced last month when I talked about the AlterWorlds project that resulted in the creation of The Human Concordat. I mentioned that one of the subsequent AlterWorlds would have been “an insolated planet in the Mechwarrior universe”. My plan had been to repurpose the planet Callashan, described below, into an AlterWorlds setting.

SYNOPSIS

When General Kerensky performed his dramatic Exodus from the Inner Sphere, prompting the beginning of the Succession Wars, he was not alone in his horror at the fierce partisanship which had grown among the members of the Star League. A group of colonists from a conglomeration of worlds formed a coalition which headed into the Periphery in an attempt to escape the madness of the growing Succession Wars.

This group, unlike Kerensky, sought not to return in glorious triumph to reform the Star League, but rather merely to survive in peace far from the power mongers of the Inner Sphere.

In pursuit of this goal they settled a planet they would come to call Callashan, and for a long time the dreams of these colonists were met. Callashan was a world of peace. The memories of the War they had left behind slowly faded as the years passed, and the future looked to be a bright and hopeful time.

But as the memory of War faded, so too did the warning it provided. After nearly three hundred years of peace the world of Callashan began to politically fracture. Now three feudal kingdoms exist (the Houses of Alcrom, Gaos, and Ethaois), each vying for control of the world with the power of the BattleMech.

The story of The Double Helix focusses upon Kalen, the greatest hero — the “Helix” — of the House of Alcrom. In an attempt to form an alliance between the House of Alcrom and the House of Ethaois, Kalen has been betrothed to Natasha; the Helix of House Ethaois.

The marriage, however, will be anything but simple. The leaders of the two houses argue over where the marriage be held… and when… and how. The bride- and groom-to-be have not only never met each other, they have tried to kill each other dozens of times upon the battlefield. The House of Gaos will do anything to prevent the marriage from taking place, including killing and destroying anybody and anything involved.

And if the marriage is this much fun, just imagine what the honeymoon will be like.

CALLASHAN

The advantages of the world of Callashan are numerous, particularly if it were to ever be translated into a setting within the BattleTech or MechWarrior game systems. Because it is isolated and secluded (Callashan has lost the Dropship technology necessary to leave the planet) Callashan would make an excellent stand-alone product.

Callashan also has a potential as a “beginner’s intro” to the BattleTech system and universe: without becoming fully immersed in the history of the Succession Wars, the Exodus, the Clan Return, and all the other innunendo of the main BattleTech universe a player can become comfortably familiar with the ‘small’ world of Callashan before expanding.

Other possibilities of future expansion would include discovery of Callashan by the Explorer Corps project — possibly mistaking the world for one or more of the Clan homeworlds.

But what is Callashan?

Before delving deeper into the plot of The Double Helix I feel it’s important to explain a few things about the local politics, the important people, and the current social structure of the world of Callashan.

Callashan was formed as a Free Colony to escape the terrors of the Succession Wars — following the example of Kerensky, several small colony worlds near the Periphery picked up lock, stock, and barrel and rode out into the unknown in search of a new home under the leadership of a man called Callashan (hence the planet’s name).

Callashan ruled as the first king of this new world, but he died without heir, and a primitive feudal structure was left in his place — a struggle between the houses of Alcrom, Gaos, and Ethaois (the three planets which had first settled this world) for supremacy.

Callashan had not wanted to see war visited upon people who had struggled so long and hard to avoid it, and so he instituted a championship. Each house was to nominate its greatest BattleMech pilot — their Helix — to the Triple Helix, a round-robin competition held once every five years. The house whose Helix emerged victorious would claim the crown for the next five years, when a new Triple Helix would be held.

But kingships are not meant to be prizes, and so, inevitably, this system collapsed beneath petty feuding. The competition of the Triple Helix was moved onto the battlefield. Nonetheless, the position of the Helix still holds tremendous power and respect within the new governments.

Note: Over the years Callashan’s Mechs have developed away from the standards. Therefore, those Mechs whose names are still the same will often be ‘tweaked’ from those currently owned by the Inner Sphere powers. In addition many new Mechs are also present.

MAJOR CHARACTERS

Kalen – Kalen is the hero of our little tale. Kalen is one of the best Helixes in the history of Callashan. He is about 25, sandy-haired, well built and a generally likeable guy. He is also a demon in the cockpit. He feels great respect for, and has a paternal figure in, Lord J’hon (see below).

Natasha – The heroine of The Double Helix, and also the daughter of Lord Optun (see below). Natasha is the youngest to ever achieve the Helix rank. Only 18, her Mech skills are exceeded only by her firery temper. She has olive-skin and dark hair, and serves the House of Ethaois faithfully.

Kenneth – Our primary villain, the Helix of the House of Gaos. In the most classic of traditions where Kalen is “one of the best”, Kenneth is the best. This of course means that by the end of the story Kalen will have barbecued this guy in this cockpit. Ken is extremely talented and about 19 years old. But he’s also a jerk, impatient, and generally immature. He also whines too much. He’s coddled and favored by…

Lord Dysim – Current ruler of the House of Gaos. He puts up with Kenneth, because, on the whole, Kenneth is a superb Mech pilot. House Gaos is the most powerful of the three houses, due in large part to the secret technological programs initiated under Dysim’s reign of power. However, Dysim is also a cruel, corrupt, power-mongering individual. He’s married to…

Lady Eve – Lady Eve is not exactly a “sharp cookie”. She’s easily dominated by her husband, and he cares little for her — she has failed to produce an heir, and is therefore worthless to him. She plays an exceedingly minor role in this novel. In fact, so minor, she has managed to utterly slip off the synposis below.

Giles – Is Kalen’s engineer. Actually he works with the entire Alcrom Helix Guard, but he and Kalen are also the best of friends. He serves…

Lord J’hon – The current ruler of the House of Alcrom. J’hon has taken no wife, nor does it appear he is going to. However, he took Kalen under his wing after the youth’s father was killed in a Mech (his mother having died several years earlier in a cockpit as well), and Kalen is the current heir. He is the mastermind of the marriage which The Double Helix focusses upon, and he’s worked for months with…

Lord Optun – Current ruler of the House of Ethaois, to get the whole thing worked out. Optun, while originally hesitant about the plan, has now welcomed it with open arms. Natasha is his daughter, and with Kalen as the sole heir of the House of Alcrom the two houses will be united under a common rule within a generation. Lord Optun is about ten years younger than Lord J’hon (mid-40s) and is married to:

Lady Julia – Who is generally optimistic about everything… even if the world is about to come to an end. Natasha can’t stand talking to her, usually with good reason. Finally we come to her son,

Prince Andrew – Who is pretty much exactly where he wants to be. He’s slightly younger than Natasha, but still acts kinda like a “big brother” to her.

CHAPTER BREAKDOWN

Chapter One: Kalen is on the field, commanding his Alcrom Helix Guard against a raid of a supply depot by the forces of the House of Ehaois. The battle goes very well for Kalen and his unit, but as final pursuit for destruction of the incursion is about to commence he is ordered back to base. Upon returning to base he demands an explanation for why he was not allowed to finish his assault, particularly as he was about to confront the Ethaios Helix. By way of his explanation he is told of the engagement to Natasha for the first time. Although the truce is “official” both powers have yet to inform commanders, which is why the encounter happened at all. He has just enough time to ask something to the effect of, “Wait, go over that again…” before Chapter One Ends.

Chapter Two: “WHAT?!” Natasha is a little less calm when confronted with the news from her father and mother. They argue for several minutes (this gives us ample time to introduce several political elements of the planet). Natasha then goes off to seek counsel from her brother, Andrew, and they talk for several minutes. At this point we’re no longer totally certain if Kalen is ever going to come back again, so…

Chapter Three: Kalen goes to Giles, his best friend and mechanic, and tells him the as-yet unreleased news of his engagement. They talk for awhile while Giles conducts repairs on Kalen’s mech (or at least some of the Mech’s in Kalen’s group). Also introduced during this time period is Giles’ assistant, David, who becomes crucial later on in the plot.

We now cut to House Gaos, where Kenneth is speaking to Dysim. He’s somehow discovered the marrriage alliance (through a spy — who is actually David, but that isn’t revealed until later to the reader).

Chapter Four: Natasha is onboard the transport shuttle taking herself, her father, her mother, and Andrew to meet Kalen on a border outpost between the areas controlled by the two houses. She’s sullen, and nobody’s attempts to cheer her up succeed. After a couple pages of sullenness a bomb goes off crippling the shuttle which proceeds to crash.

Cut to Kalen and J’hon waiting at the outpost. News comes in of the shuttle’s crash… plus Gaos Mechs are on their way towards the area. Kalen clambers into a mech himself and is off to the rescue.

Cut back to Natasha in the wreckage. Well, it’s not really much of a wreck. Everybody’s shook up, and the shutttle is defenseless and certainly not going anywhere, but no one’s dead (as we quickly ascertain). She takes instant control, organizing everybody and calming people down.

Back to Kalen, who lumbers over the hill and down to the shuttle. He loads up the four people in the shuttle (Natasha, Optun, Julia, and the pilot) into his own cockpit as best as possible. He completes this just as the Gaos mechs come plowing into sight. What follows is an action-packed, multi-page sequence of a running chase betwen Kalen (who is drastically outnumbered) and the Gaos mechs. Kalen is little aided by Natasha’s constant exclamations of advice.

Of course he is eventually successful at getting within range of a sufficient back-up force to scare the Gaos Mechs off, and the chapter ends on a happy note.

Chapter Five: The official “first” meeting of the betrothed couple takes place as planned. Afterwards, everybody gets together and talks for awhile about the mutual future of the two houses, the stunning rescue by Kalen, and other pieces of stupid trivia which is absolutely boring Natasha (from whose perspective this section is told) to tears. She doesn’t like what she sees in Kalen, which is just as well because…

Kalen thinks pretty much the same as she does, as we switch to his perspective for the remainder of the session. He and Natasha are never left alone, and barely speak to each other. In the end, after much argument a plan is laid for the official announcement ceremony, and farewells are spoken.

Finally we cut to House Gaos where we are treated to Kenneth carefully weaseling his way out of responsibility for the failure to successfully complete the sabotage the House Ethaois transport.

Chapter Six: This story switches POV between Kalen and Natasha rapidly, telling of a dual raid by the Gaos on both House Alcrom and House Ethaois. The chapter begins with Kalen talking to Giles, then receiving word of the raid. Our first contact with Natasha is in the cockpit of her Mech shortly after that as she attacks the Gaos forces. This is basically a straight-out battle chapter. The gaos forces are pushing towards two security compounds (one for each House). Natasha successfully prevents the breach of her compound, but Kalen fails to protect his.

Chapter Seven: The official ceremony of the betrothed couple is committed — it is broadcast across the territories held by the two houses. Afterwards Natasha and Kalen have their first real opportunity to speak to each other in length and alone…. it doesn’t exactly take well. They’re at each other’s throats. They control their tempers quickly, however, when their Lords enter, but they aren’t thrilled to hear the next piece of news: Kalen is to accompany Optun, Natasha, and the rest of the Ethaois diplomatic party back and tour their security measures.

When they arrive in Ethaois, however, the tour is cut short by news of a second Gaos attack along the border — again the intended target appears to be the security compound. Kalen suits up with Natasha and they’re off again. (Although this looks awfully close to the last combat sequence, there’s a lot of actual character development between the two.) In addition to their viewpoint, we also follow the Gaos Elemental Leader as he leads his strikeforce into the security compound and withdraws the files needed before blasting out. Although Kalen and Natasha (and Natasha’s Guard) fight hard, they’re too late to stop the extraction (although they take out a good number of Gaos Mechs).

During the end of the fight, however, Natasha’s Mech is seriously damaged and she is forced to eject — Kalen saves her life by attacking a mech preparing to destroy her ejection seat. At this point Kalen begins to analyze how he really feels about her.

Chapter Eight: In the aftermath of the battle Kalen and Natasha begin discussing what the purpose of the raid was. Kalen knows his security compound was also harboring secret research into a next generation of mech, and Natasha also knows that her compound was being used to test new satellite spy equipment. After a bit of brainstorming they realize the only common element between the two compounds was the fact they were security compounds: Meaning the probable target of extraction was the area battle sheets used by the two houses.

Kalen needs to get back to Alcrom and warn his people, and Natasha warns her father.

Chapter Nine: Now the fun starts and the plot starts speeding up. When Kalen tries to board his shuttle, he is denied access by a guard. He is forced to knock out the guard and forcibly take off from the Ethaois compound.

Meanwhile, Natasha has reached her father who is in an uproar about Kalen’s “escape”. Natasha is confused.

It turns out that Optun had no intention of actually going through with the marriage. Instead the entire purpose was to lure Kalen to the Ethaois compound, trap him, and then ransom him for a considerable gain of power and territory from the House of Alcrom. Natasha is disgusted… if nothing else, Kalen saved her life, and now she discovers that she has been utterly deceived by her own parents.

Kalen, for his part, is madly flying towards the Alcrom border. He is being pursued by Ethaois aerofighters, but — after several tense moments of aerial acrobatics — he manages to cross his border and be joined by Alcrom aerofighters who force the Ethaois fliers off. When Kalen arrives at the main Alcrom compound he is greeted by the news that Gaos has begun a full scale assault upon the Alcrom border. J’onn has sent to Optun for assistance, but has been refused. Kalen decides he must have been mistaken about Natasha after all, and that the whole situation was a part of some sick ruse.

The situation on the front is bleak — Gaos has used the battle sheet tactics stolen from the security compound to breach the normal patrols, and they are striking deeply into Alcrom territory — their apparent target being the Alcrom central compound. Kalen is heading out into the thick of things.

Chapter Ten: Kalen leads his men into the battle, and over the course of the chapter they are slowly decimated by the Gaos forces. The chapter ends with Kalen in a nearly hopeless position with his men dropping around him like fleas.

Chapter Eleven: The cavalry rides in — taking the form, in this case, of Natasha and the Ethaois Helix Guard. She’s rallied her loyal soldiers, ignored her father’s orders, and come out to aid House Alcrom. The battle rages on, now switching POV between Natasha and Kalen. They become separated as things begin to look worse and worse for House Alcrom. Kalen is eventually faced off by Kenneth and two other Mechs of House Gaos. Kalen fights a slowly losing battle, destroying one of Kenneth’s supporting mechs, but Natasha (again) shows up in the nick of time to wipe out the second supporting mech. They win the day, signalling a turning point in the battle of House Alcrom.

Chapter Twelve: House Alcrom emerges victorious. Kalen and Natasha return to House Alcrom. Natasha has been disowned by her father, her Helix status cancelled, and the other warriors in her guard decommissioned. Kalen and Natasha face their true feelings for each other, and the book concludes in a glorious ceremony which names Natasha an Honorary Helix of House Alcrom (another first for her) and recommissions her warriors as House Alcrom soldiers.

FUTURE PLANS

The Double Helix ends in such a way that no sequels are necessary. If such sequels are requested, however, they are easily provided. Kalen and Natasha do go on to unify Callashan, but shortly after their reign begins new trouble looms: The Explorer Corps have found the planet; the Inner Sphere has returned.

Go to Part 2: An Untold Novel’s Beginning

The Dunwich Horror and Others - H.P. Lovecraft (Arkham House)The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft are available in a handsomely compiled e-book from the Arkham Archivist, so there’s never been a better time to read Lovecraft’s original stories if you’ve been depriving yourself until now.

If you’re feeling ambitious and want to read all of Lovecraft, then simply reading the stories in the order that they were written is definitely the way to go: You’ll see the evolution and transition of his ideas in “real time” (so to speak) as the mythology of the Mythos grows up around you. I, personally, find this experience fascinating because, at the beginning of his career, Lovecraft was extremely racist, virulently xenophobic, and cynically terrified of the future. At the end of his career he would certainly not be considered liberal by today’s standards, but his views on all of these subjects had radically shifted and softened. I find Lovecraft’s racism appalling, but I find the totality of his career to be hopeful and uplifting: People can learn. People can get better. People can expand their horizons.

But tackling the complete corpus of Lovecraft is definitely a major undertaking, so it’s understandable if you’d rather just sample his work. For that approach, this is the list I recommend for getting a good overview:

  • The Dunwich Horror
  • The Call of Cthulhu
  • Shadow Over Innsmouth
  • The Colour Out of Space
  • Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath
  • At the Mountains of Madness

The order in which you read these six stories doesn’t matter much (although I’d save At the Mountains of Madness until last). But if you read all six you’ll have a pretty good sense of Lovecraft’s breadth, you’ll have experienced most of the “big ideas” that people talk about when they talk about Lovecraft, and you’ll have read a good selection of Lovecraft’s best work.

A case could be made for adding “The Shadow Out of Time” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter” to this list (the latter of which should be read before “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” if you read both). But I, personally, don’t think they’re as good as the six stories listed above.

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