The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘wir’

Halo: Combat EvolvedEvery so often I’ll indulge in what I call a “mythos delve”. This is where I’ll just dive wholeheartedly into whatever transmedia empire has transfixed my attention. A few years ago it was Star Wars. Before that Heavy Gear, The Matrix (this one was easier), Star Trek, and so forth. (This exploration of multi-faceted fictional milieus is undoubtedly part of what I find appealing about RPGs.)

Most recently, the Halo franchise has captured my attention. A little less than a decade ago, I played both Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2, but then the franchise jumped to the Xbox 360 and I didn’t. That recently changed, however, and I started playing my way through the older games as prep for the newer ones. In the interim, I had also acquired the first three Halo novels from the $1 racks at Half-Price Books, which brings us here.

HALO: COMBAT EVOLVED (Bungie Studios): I’m not going to attempt anything even remotely resembling a full review of the Halo video games. (Largely because that would be redundant and pointless.) But what I will say is this: The original video game was basically Ringworld + Starship Troopers + zombies. That’s a pretty awesome premise.

Halo: The Fall of Reach - Eric NylundHALO – THE FALL OF REACH (Eric Nylund): I bring that up primarily because the premise for The Fall of Reach can basically be summed up as Ender’s Game + Starship Troopers.

This proves to be an effective and entertaining variation on the themes of the original game. By shifting the underlying tropes of the story, Nylund manages to weave a tale which is true to the original without merely rehashing its content. (This can be a very fine line for tie-in fiction to tread: If you simply retread the original the result is repetitive and dull — like looking at something that’s been xeroxed too many times. If you chart your own course, on the other hand, you can end up violating the reader’s sense of how the fictional universe should work.)

Unfortunately, the training sequences lack the cleverness and unique insight which make Ender’s Game or The Hunger Games into effective young adult literature by bringing the reader along on the protagonist’s journey of discovery.The military ops are handled with more cleverness and detail, but end up being just a trifle too disjointed: They’re effective vignettes, but don’t feel like a cohesive narrative building towards some greater climax.

With that being said, if you’re a fan of Halo — or just a fan of military SF — this is a book worth checking out. It’s a fun read that kept me turning the pages.

(As a tangential note, I was amused when this book made me aware — for the very first time — that the SPARTANs are supposed to be super-fast. One of the things I had always kind of liked about Halo was the more slow / more-realistic pace it had compared to other shooters of the time. Discovering that it was actually supposed to be representing superhuman speed only served to drive home how completely inferior console controls are for first-person shooters.)

Halo: The Flood - William C. DietzHALO – THE FLOOD (William C. Dietz): The back cover pitch for The Flood is that it will depict the events from the first video game from alternative points of view. That actually sounded really interesting to me: One of the things I really enjoyed about Halo: Combat Evolved was the implication that there was a wider, guerrilla-style war being fought across the surface of Halo as both the UNSC and Covenant forces explored this strange and alien world. Between the armed conflict, the mega-relics of the Forerunners, and the emerging threat of the Flood itself, there’s a ton of potential for developing original material while capitalizing on the video game narrative itself by showing the Master Chief’s journey (and its impact) through the eyes of others.

Unfortunately, the back cover pitch was lying to me. 80% of the book is just a novelization of the game (which is precisely as interesting as you would imagine a faithful novelization of a first-person shooter would be). The rest is just bland cliche starring a rotating cast of dimwitted stereotypes who have been hit over the head a few too many times with the Stupid Protagonist Hammer.

This is a book you should definitely skip.

Halo: First Strike - Eric NylundHALO – FIRST STRIKE (Eric Nylund): One of the most fantastic and fascinating aspects of media consumption is the act of closure. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud refers to this phenomenon as “blood in the gutters”, demonstrating how the space between one panel and the next forces the reader to perform a creative act: “Here, in the limbo of the gutter, the human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea.” He uses the example of showing a serial killer raising an axe in one panel and then “hearing” the victim scream off-panel in the next. “I may have drawn a raised axe in this example, but I’m not the one who let it drop or decided how hard the blow, or who screamed, or why. That, dear reader, was your special crime, each of you committing it in your own style.” (The parallel to a horror film in which a victim is killed off-screen is obvious.)

But this phenomenon, in my opinion, is not limited to small events. And one of the dangers of tie-in fiction which attempts to “fill in the gaps” between one story and the next is that it can very easily start screwing with the closure which the viewer has already provided. This creates a natural friction and resistance from the reader as the foreign, incompatible material tries to “wipe out” their own creative response.

This is a problem which First Strike — which seeks to fill in the gap between Halo and Halo 2 — runs into headlong. And it’s severely exacerbated by some significantly inaccurate handling of continuity from Halo 2 (which may be at least partially the result of Nylund writing the book before the game was finished).

With that being said, Nylund succeeds once again at giving us an entertaining pulp romp through the Halo universe. The military ops are once again clever and varied, and Nylund also succeeds at bringing to life a cast of supporting characters that give the book depth and significance.



Eric Nylund / William C. Dietz / Eric Nylund
Published: 2001 / 2003 / 2003
Publisher: Del Rey
Cover Price: $6.99 / $6.99 / $6.99
ISBN: 0345451325 / 0345459210 / 0345467817
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Green Lantern: No Fear - Geoff JohnsEvery so often I give Geoff Johns a chance to convince me that he’s not a hack. I do this because he keeps getting such glowing praise that I think to myself, “It must be that I just haven’t read the right Geoff Johns comics.”

But it never works. Every time I try reading something by Geoff Johns, I always find the same thing: Mediocrity.

My latest effort has been his work on Green Lantern. I started with Green Lantern: Secret Origin (which was a decent retelling of the origin story), continued with Green Lantern: Rebirth (which was a passable effort at making a pure Tale of Grand Retcon(TM) something other than a mind-numbing exercise in dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s on the way to explaining why some other set of stories never actually happened), and landed in Green Lantern: No Fear.

These pages from the last of these volumes, taken from two back-to-back stories, tell you pretty much everything you need to know about Geoff Johns.

Green Lantern - Geoff Johns

Green Lantern - Geoff Johns

(You can click for larger images.)

While the surface quality has been changed, those pages both tell the exact same story: Random and essentially nameless man and woman chat for a couple of panels. The big bad guy for the issue shows up and slaughters the man in a gruesome fashion. The death of the woman is then implied, but left off-panel so that we can imagine it in our own gruesome detail.

I don’t have a problem with the story. (The first artist, in particular, does a great job of pacing it and that final panel of red is inspired.) I do have a problem with the fact that Johns is repeating himself in the most formulaic fashion.

It would be one thing if this was just some random nitpick. But the real problem here is that these pages are merely the most perfect encapsulation of what’s wrong with these volumes: At both the micro level and the macro level, Johns repeats himself. And repeats himself. And repeats himself. And repeats himself…

And once you’ve noticed it, you also can’t help noticing that Johns is also repeating a lot of other people, too.

I don’t mean this in the sense of plagiarism. I just mean that there is absolutely nothing interesting or inspiring in anything that Johns has to say: We’ve seen these stories before. And we’ve seen them done better.

If you’re brand new to superhero comics, then you might potentially find Johns’ work nifty. It’s a workman-like rendition of nifty stuff drawn from what is clearly Johns’ own passion for superhero stories. But unlike Kurt Busiek or Grant Morrison or Mark Waid (when he’s at his best), there is absolutely nothing transformative or reinvigorating or fresh in anything that Johns is doing. Instead, it’s paint-by-numbers storytelling so predictable in its technique that it’s as if Johns is dealing a hand of poker using transparent cards.

But I’m a sucker, so give me another five years and I’ll probably give the guy another shot.



Geoff Johns
Published: 2008 / 2005 / 2005
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: $19.99 / $14.99 / $12.99
ISBN: 1401230857 / 1401227554 / 1401210589
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The Lightning Thief - Rick RiordanReading Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief was a fairly fascinating experience. Taken on its own merits, the novel is a perfectly acceptable piece of light fluffery. On the other hand, the Percy Jackson series is clearly a calculated effort to cash-in on the success of Harry Potter, and reading the novel from that point of view gives a great deal of insight into not only Riordan’s creative process, but also the elements that made Rowling’s work so successful.

Basically, Riordan seeks to invert the structure of Harry Potter in every part. Thus, Potter’s magical school becomes Jackson’s magical summer camp. Potter hates his mundane home life, so Jackson loves his. The friendly headmaster Dumbledore becomes the hostile camp master Dionysus. And so forth.

You can also see this inversion being carried out on the larger structural level of the plot: Potter generally stays at his school and adventure must seek him out. Jackson, on the other hand, must venture forth on grand quests.

In general, this model of wholesale inversion is probably more effective at keeping the series fresh than if Riordan had decided to simply ape Rowling. But once you’ve spotted the trick, it becomes depressingly predictable. It also creates deeper problems for Riordan.

For example, one of the really beautiful things about Hogwarts was the irony of a kid who wanted to go to school. It’s an inversion of the natural order, and thus – on subtle yet fundamental level – reinforces the otherworldliness of Rowling’s milieu. But a kid who hates school and wants to go to a summer camp? It’s bland vanilla even before you get to the random grab-bag of camp activities that make Quidditch look like a reasonable sporting event. (Riordan tends to tell rather than show. He wants the summer camp to be really cool, but he never spends the narrative time there necessary to invest the reader as deeply as Percy himself is apparently vested.)

The Lightning Thief also calls attention to another aspect of Harry Potter that sets it apart from the great bulk of fantasy fiction: Harry Potter is utterly humble in his origins. He is not born with any special powers. The only prophecy which applies to him is essentially exhausted before he hits his first birthday. Everything we see him accomplish, he accomplishes through hard work, determination, study, and the assistance of friends well-earned. (In this he shares much in common with Bilbo and Frodo.)

Percy Jackson, on the other hand, is Born Awesome. He’s the son of one of the most powerful gods, and so he’s inherently more powerful than everyone else around him. Ta da! And whereas Potter has his one small advantage stripped from him midway through the series, Jackson simply continues to accumulate power through divine fiat. We never see him work for anything. Or earn anything. At most he occasionally digs deep to find his hero genes and then unleashes the raw potential of his authorially-granted I’m So Special status.

Ultimately, the Percy Jackson series is to Harry Potter what The Sword of Shannara is to The Lord of the Rings: Riordan mugged Rowling in a dark alley, rifled her pockets, and shuffled the stuff he found into a slightly different order while scraping off the serial numbers. In the process quite a bit of the original’s charm and depth has been lost, which is perhaps only to be expected when you’re dealing with a knock-off.

On the other hand, Riordan’s writing, despite its shortcomings, is better than early Terry Brooks. And he also finds his own unique sense of grandeur and mystery (whereas Brooks only managed to turn everything he touched to mediocrity in The Sword of Shannara). So while the comparison may be apt, it is not entirely fair.

So while I can’t strongly recommend The Lightning Thief, I also wouldn’t dissuade you from it. It’s a bit of light fun, and the series as a whole tends to improve as it runs its course.


Rick Riordan
Published: 2005
Publisher: Hyperion
Cover Price: $7.99
ISBN: 1423139494X
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Studying the lost authors of early fantasy and science fiction is often a humbling lesson in the fickleness of fate. Authors who were just as talented and creative as Robert E. Howard, Isaac Asimov, H.P. Lovecraft, or Ray Bradbury have been largely forgotten by later generations. Nor can their modern anonymity be explained due to a lack of influence or popularity — in many cases they were more influential and popular during their publishing careers than contemporaries who remain well-known today.

I first became aware of this phenomenon in the mid ’90s when Kurt Busiek pointed me towards Mutant, a collection of stories written by Henry Kuttner that had played a major influence in the creation of the X-Men by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Kuttner, I discovered, had influenced an entire generation of science fiction authors. In 1946, at the height of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, fans were asked to choose between Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, A.E. Van Vogt, and a dozen others to name one of them as the World’s Best SF Author. They chose Kuttner. Kuttner married C.L. Moore, who had already become known as the First Lady of Science Fiction. The two of them writing together created an amazing corpus of work at such an incomprehensible pace that it required more than twenty pseudonyms to publish it all.

Kuttner died in 1958. Moore retired form writing. And for half a century their works slowly faded into obscurity. Discovering these lost jewels of speculative fiction (including Fury, which remains one of my Top 10 Science Fiction Novels of all-time) was a real wake-up call.

In the past 10 years or so the information-deluge of the Internet coupled with global access to catalogs of used books and small press collections have started to return many of these Lost Authors to the light. Among them is Clark Ashton Smith.

I originally encountered Smith’s writing about a decade ago when I found a collection of his Zothique stories (set on the last continent of a dying Earth). These stories made me want to read more, but it proved devilishly difficult to find more of Smith’s writing in print. (At reasonable prices, anyway.)

So when I heard several years ago that Night Shade Books was planning to publish a five volume series collecting all of his stories, I immediately signed up for a subscription. Unfortunately, the series has proven to be absurdly lethargic in the pace of its releases. In fact, it has yet to be completed (although there is great hope that the last volume will appear later this year).

This has not prevented me, however, from sitting down recently to enjoy Volume 1: The End of the Story.

The series presents Smith’s writing in the chronological order of its composition, starting in 1925 with “The Abominations of Yondo”. This was a story that I had read before, but had no idea that it was Smith’s first stab at speculative fiction. It is a remarkable freshmen work, effortlessly conjuring forth an alien and fantastical environment of an utterly unearthly character. This, in fact, becomes Smith’s defining strength as an author. The alien planets, alternate universes, and ancient epochs in which he sets his stories are not merely distant in time or space; they are utterly alien in their character.

The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for Yondo lies nearest of all to the world’s rim; and strange winds, blowing from a pit no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its ruinous fields with the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns. The dark, orblike mountains which rise from its wrinkled and pitted plain are not all its own, for some are fallen asteroids half-buried in that abysmal sand. Things have crept in from nether space, whose incursion is forbid by the gods of all proper and well-ordered lands; but there are no such gods in Yondo, where live the hoary genii of stars abolished and decrepit demons left homeless by the destruction of antiquated hells.

“… the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns.” Could anyone mistake such a place as merely being the analog of some Earthly wasteland?

The strength of “The Abominations of Yondo” aside, however, Smith’s talent did not spring forth fully formed from the brow of Zeus. And this volume, containing as it does Smith’s earliest efforts, has a fair share of formulaic work: “The Ninth Skeleton”, “Phantoms of the Fire”, and “The Resurrection of the Rattlesnake”, for example, are paint-by-number horror “shockers”. “The Last Incantation” and “A Night in Malneant” are thin and predictable morality tales.

But even in these weaker tales there is a vividness of description and a poetic quality of verse which raises them, however slightly, above similar fare. (With the exception of “Phantoms of Fire” which is simply a bad story by any accounting.) The dead streets of Malneant, in particular, continue to echo through the chambers of my mind many long nights after I finished the tale.

There are, similarly, far too many tales starring self-inserted writers of pulp fiction and poverty-stricken poets. But here, again, Smith manages to use this weak conceit to good effect from time to time. For example, “The Monster of the Prophecy” is the tale of a struggling, poverty-stricken poet who is plucked off the street by an alien visitor from a distant planet. Not only does the poet’s writing become famous, but he himself is given the opportunity to adventure among the stars. In synopsis, the tale sounds like ripe fodder for a Mary Sue. But, in practice, Smith sidesteps the abyss and produces a memorable (if somewhat flawed) tale.

If Smith suffers from a consistent flaw throughout this volume, it is the weakness of his plots and the forgettable quality of his characters. In some ways, however, this flaw stands in complement to his strengths: His tales often read as travelogues of the bizarre, featuring cipherous everymen who serve as the readers’ empty avatars as they wander through the alien vistas.

In many ways, the stories reveal Smith’s true passion as a poet: Many read like tone poems, and I found the book most enjoyable when I chose to sample its contents instead of trying to barge from one tale to the next from front cover to back.

I am curious to see, as I continue to work my way through Smith’s oeuvre, whether his poetic mastery of language and his mind-blowing descriptions of fantastical landscapes will become wedded to plots of substance and characters that you can care about.

On the other hand, I feel this review will be read as more negative than it perhaps should be. In addition to “The Abominations of Yondo” and “The Monster of the Prophecy”, this collection also contains “The Venus of Azombeii” (in which the characters do explode off of the page with a surprising passion), “Thirteen Phantasms” (in which a morality tale is twisted and turned into something unpredictable and beautiful and special), “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (which could be described as capturing all the vigor and spirit of Howard’s Conan stories and wedding it to Smith’s fantastical vision, except for the fact that it was written three years before Conan appeared), “The Metamorphosis of the World” (which, although flawed in parts, is majestical in its scope), “Marooned in Andromeda” (an excellent entry in the travelogue category), and “The Immeasurable Horror” (featuring one of the most memorable depictions of the jungles of space opera Venus). And these are all excellent tales which anyone might be well-advised to read.

Perhaps more importantly, Smith’s eye for the fantastic is utterly unique. The influence of his writing has been widely felt, but if you haven’t read his own work, then you’ve never read anything quite like Clark Ashton Smith.


Clark Ashton Smith
Published: 2007
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Cover Price: $25.00
ISBN: 1597800287
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The Elfish Gene is the story of a sad, pathetic, socially maladjusted boy who suffered from borderline delusions in an effort to escape his sad, pathetic existence. He fell in with a group of assholes and chose to continue hanging out with that group of assholes even when it meant becoming an asshole himself and pissing over the people who were actually his friends. In the process, he grew up to be a sad, pathetic, socially maladjusted adult.

Between those two points on his lifeline, he played Dungeons & Dragons. Ergo, it’s only natural for him to conclude that D&D retroactively caused him to be a sad, pathetic, and socially maladjusted person.

He’d also like you to believe that he got over being an asshole. But even in the controlled narrative of his own book he can’t hide the fact that he spends a great deal of time considering himself “superior” to wide swaths of people. For example, consider his thesis that “fatties are failures”. Or the fact that he considers the moment that he became a responsible adult to be the moment in which he left an injured child in the middle of a park so that he could try to hook up with a cute girl.

And not just any injured child: A child he had actually injured himself.

(I wish I was making that up.)

To the book’s credit, most of Barrowcliffe’s anecdotes regarding a childhood spent playing D&D and other roleplaying games are charming, resonant, and well-written. His struggle to differentiate between delusion and reality is actually quit harrowing (and great material for a memoir). I can even sympathize that, for a man like Barrowcliffe who has difficulty differentiating fantasy from reality on an everyday basis, D&D might be a dangerous addiction that would feed into his inherent predilection for delusion.

The problem I have with Barrowcliffe, however, is that he claims his personal bad experiences to be universal and then uses that claim as a bludgeon to derogate gamers in general. (Which is, of course, nothing more than Barrowcliffe’s continued proclivity to be an asshole rearing its ugly head.) His entire book is written around the thesis that “D&D makes you a bad person and you should run away from it as fast as you can”. (Which he literally does at the book’s conclusion: “I could hear a noise I couldn’t place. Then I looked down and realized it was coming from my feet; I was running. Something in my subconscious was rushing me back to my wife, the dog, the TV, away from the lands of fantasy and towards reality, the place I can now call home.”)

It is perhaps unsurprising to discover that I would consider this thesis to be grotesquely repulsive and offensive. In no small part because there’s another story of D&D to be told: In my life, D&D was the social venue in which I learned how to interact with fellow human beings in a mature fashion. D&D encouraged my development in both verbal and mathematical skills. D&D is the foundation of the passions which now shape my professional careers. And there are a lot of people like me. People who didn’t suffer from delusional mental instability when they came to the game.

Barrowcliffe writes, “Gary Gygax once pointed out that to talk about a ‘winner’ in D&D is like talking about a winner in real life. If I had to sum D&D up that would be how I’d do it — a game with no winners but lots of losers.” It is perhaps notable that Barrowcliffe feels that real life is populated by losers (there’s his asshole tendency again), but I find it more notable that his summary is the exact inverse of mine. In my world, there are no losers in a roleplaying game. Only winners.

Mark Barrowcliffe is an alcoholic who wrote a book concluding that everyone who drinks is an alcoholic. He is no doubt baffled that wine connouisseurs aren’t amused with the broad brush he’s painted them with.


Mark Barrowcliffe
Published: 2009
Publisher: Soho Press
Cover Price: $14.00
ISBN: 1569476012
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