A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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Even middling Lord Dunsany is good stuff

Lowell Kempf
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I was surprised to realize, when I started reading it, that I hadn’t read Tales of Three Hemispheres before. While there are vast sections of Lord Dunsany’s writings I haven’t read, I’ve still read a lot of his early short stories.

There was a period about ten years ago when I was reading collection after collection on Project Gutenberg and I assumed I had read Three Hemispheres then. I’m glad that I didn’t. While it isn’t the best Dunsany wrote, if I had read it amidst a flood of other Dunsany, I’d have missed what nifty elements it does have.

The book actually breaks down into two distinctive parts. Some unrelated stories and three interconnected stories, including the previously published Idle Days on the Yann.

I enjoyed the first part. The stories might not have been extraordinary but even middle of the road Dunsany is good reading. I particularly liked the Old Brown Coat, which would have been at home as a Jorkens story.

But the last three stories, collectively known as Beyond the Fields We Know (a phrase that since been pounded into the ground until it has reached the Earth’s core), that’s the best part of the collection. Although the best story being a reprint from an earlier collection doesn’t Tales of Three Hemispheres any favors as a stand-alone book.

I’m not exaggerating that each of these stores is Lord Dunsany going to the land of dreams… and being a tourist. In particular, Idle Days on the Yann is a flat-out travelogue. It isn’t a narrative. It’s world building. And in Lord Dunsany’s hands, world building is magical.

Between The Gods of Pegana and Beyond the Fields We Know, Lord Dunsany basically created splat books.

Tales of Three Hemispheres is not one of Lord Dunsany’s greatest hits. However, it isn’t just for the completists either.
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Wed Sep 15, 2021 6:28 pm
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The Sound of His Horn is a fever dream of a dystopia

Lowell Kempf
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The Sound of His Horn is a novel that I occasionally saw listed as an influential one but not one I heard a lot of conversation about. As if it was a book that mostly read by authors It was written by Sarban, which was the pseudonym for the British diplomat John William Wall. And, as I read the book, I couldn’t help but wonder if his professional life influenced his artistic one.

The Sound of His Horn is a ‘What if Hitler won WW II’ stories but it’s one that not like any other I have read. Instead of an authoritarian dystopia, it is a fever dream with touches of primal fear and Brave New World eugenics.

The story is framed as a story within a story. An unnamed narrator hears the story from a WW II veteran named Alan Querdillon who is clearly suffering from PTSD. During the war, he escaped from a German prison camp. Shocked by a mysterious barrier, he wakes up a hundred years later in a world where Germany had won.

The entire future section of the book takes place at the hunting estate of Reich Master Forester Count Hans Von Hackelnberg. Almost medieval in many respects and science fiction in others, the estate is an absolute horror show where human beings, sometimes genetically modified, are the prey.

There is absolutely no way to talk about The Sound of His Horn without mentioning the complete objectification of women in the bad future. They are hunted, bred to be hunting animals and even used as furniture. Since this is depicted as despicable and nightmarish, I’m choosing to believe that Sarban does not support such a view. The degree of dehumanization is profoundly and effectively disturbing.

And I also have to mention Von Hackelnberg. While he actually shows up in a relatively small portion of what is already a short novel, he looms over everything. A giant of a man who is full of primal rage and violence, I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be supernatural or not. His scorn for his fat, pampered guests emphasizes his other nature.

As I mentioned before, Querdillon is clearly suffering from PTSD in the present time and the future section has a definite fever dream quality. A very possible interpretation is that he went mad and all of his fantastic experiences were in his his head. That possibility makes the already dreamy, nightmarish book even more uncertain.

After reading The Sound of His Horn, I can see why the book is considered so influential and also why it doesn’t seem to be widely read. I don’t know if it is a good book but it is a memorable and disturbing one.
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Fri Sep 10, 2021 10:19 pm
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Boy, was Grimtooth’s Traps its own thing

Lowell Kempf
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I decided to take a virtual trip back to an earlier age in RPGs and look at the original Grimtooth’s Traps from 1981. It is certainly a look back at a time when RPG philosophy was very different.

Grimtooth’s Traps was the first in a series of game supplements that consisted to literally page after page of traps. There weren’t any game stats for any of them (at least in the original versions of the book) Just diagrams, descriptions and snarky commentary. Lots and lots of snarky commentary.

The most entertaining part of the books and probably a big reason why there ended up being so many volumes is that the narrator is a sarcastic troll named Grimtooth who feels that the deadlier the trap, the better. Since so many RPG books from this time period read like engineering text books, the Grimtooth books have a lot of character.

And as a general rule, the traps involve either a crazy amount of engineering or magic. They are wildly over the top , not even remotely cost effective and often ridiculously deadly.

Honestly, I’m hard-pressed to believe a lot of dungeon masters actually used these traps. Not only would they be potential total party killers, they would slow the game down to a crawl, even if you had a party of nothing but thieves.

That said, I can see making some of the larger traps into the centerpiece of a tomb or ruined temple or a mad wizard’s proving grounds. They don’t necessarily have to violate the part of the Hickman manifesto that says architecture should make sense.

I can’t say that Grimtooth’s Traps and the books that followed it are examples of an era old enough that most Grognards aren’t old enough to remember since they are so atypical. And I think it would take some work to make traps actually useful. But Grimtooth is a fun read.
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Wed Aug 25, 2021 8:00 pm
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Arthur C. Clarke can be funny?

Lowell Kempf
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Every few years, I find myself rereading Tales from the White Hart by Arthur C. Clarke. After reading The Travel Tales of Mister Joseph Jorkens, I felt almost obligated to revisit the book.

Tales from the White Hart is a collection of club stories, all science fiction tall tales, being told at the White Hart pub. They are all comedic, which makes this only comedy I’ve read by Clarke. (He may have written more and I just don’t know about them)

While the fantastic club story is now a well established genre, Tales from the White Hart is a relatively old example. (Although, looking it up, Gavagan’s Bar is just a little bit older) All of the stories in the White Hart fall firmly in the Science Fiction camp, although some, like the Reluctant Orchard and What Goes Up, are pretty ridiculous. Which is admitted in story

Clarke himself is the narrator but most of the stories are told by the hopefully fictional Harry Purvis. And when he isn’t telling the story, Harry is annoyed by that fact. Harry Purvis is a classic Munchausen, someone who has been everywhere and knows everybody. And he gets a bit of development by the last story.

What is interesting to me is that Clarke was apparently friends with Lord Dunsany and actually name-drops Jorkens at one point. However, Clarke’s stories remind me a lot more of Wodehouse’s club stories, like Mr. Mulliner. For one thing, they are flat out comedies while the Jorkens stories I read have more melancholy and wonder. There is a snarky tone running though White Hart. And the gender dynamics of henpecked men and in-charge women also reminds me of Wodehouse

But Wodehouse is great so that’s okay.

Tales from the White Hart isn’t the best collection of club stories I’ve ever read. But the stories are consistently good all the way through.

(Okay. Since someone will ask, I enjoy the Callahan stories (although their quality can drastically vary), the Draco Tavern Stories and the Black Widowers (which isn’t fantastical but is by Asimov) more than the White Hart)

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Aug 4, 2021 8:49 pm
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Target made me underestimate Patrick Troughton

Lowell Kempf
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As I’ve written in the past, I come from the generation of Doctor Who fans whose primary source of Doctor Who was the Target novelizations. It was certainly a different experience from a world where so much can be streamed at the touch of a button! That said, if I hadn’t had those books as a source of Doctor Who, I never could have become the fan that I continue to be today.

However, there is absolutely no denying that the books simplified the stories. They were aimed at younger readers. Which was okay since I was a younger reader at the time! I have even read that Terrance Dicks, who wrote over sixty of the books, may have helped British kids learn to love reading more than any other author. (I would love to see an actual study that claims that. Still, better him than Enid Blyton)

So, when I actually got to see stories that I only knew through the books, I was often amazed at how much depth and nuance there was. And, yes, a lot of that had to do with the actors and their acting.

I was underwhelmed by the novelization of the Three Doctors, which was a major milestone by its concept alone. And the actual episode wasn’t meaningfully different. (I am convinced that Terrence Dick often worked with the original script in one hand and a typewriter in the other) But Stephen Thorne as Omega hammed it up to eleven, chewing the scenery to the point where you’d think he was trying to eat the TARDIS console. It was over the top and kind of ludicrous but darn if it wasn’t entertaining.

And while the books never undersold the Master, you actually have to see Roger Delgado to appreciate his charm and lovely creepiness. There have been many fun interpretations of the Master but the character would have never gotten off the ground without Mister Delgado.

But I think Patrick Troughton is the one who got the worst of it. The books portrayed him as a clown, a cosmic hobo. Sight unseen, he was my least favorite Doctor.

However, actually seeing Patrick Troughton act, there is a presence and gravitas that I had no idea was there. More so than any of the Doctors who followed him (except maybe Sylvester McCoy), there is a thin layer of silliness over a core of steel. Troughton’s Doctor would see things to the bitter end and he would make them right.

The more exposure I have to Troughton’s Doctor, the more impressed I am and the more I like him. William Hartnel was where the Doctor got started but Troughton is the one who has informed every portrayal afterwards.

Yeah, didn’t get that from the books.

I am very glad that I had the Target books. In a world before the internet and streaming, they were essential. But, yeah, getting to actually watch the show is better

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Jul 30, 2021 3:12 pm
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Wodehouse and the nature of Club Stories

Lowell Kempf
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After reading the first collection of Lord Dunsany’s Jorkens stories, I found myself thinking about Wodehouse and his Mr. Mulliner stories and his golf stories. I had assumed that Dunsany had influence them until I learned Wodehouse has started writing them first

(It is hard for me to imagine anyone influencing Dunsany since he seems to have created or cultivated so many concepts that have shaped literature as at least I know it

(I also don’t know where the Drones Club stories fit into the Club Story genre. The Eggs, Beans ans Crumpets stories are stories told in a club but the reliability of the narrator doesn’t come into play)

I love both the Mulliner stories and the golf stories. That said, compared to the Jorkens stories that I have read, they are incredibly formulaic. Boy or girl has problem. Their attempts to solve problem make it much worse. Something crazy happens that solves the problem and they get happily married. The end.

And, in the golf stories, nine times out of ten, the guy with the lower handicap gets the girl

In the introduction to one of the Mr. Mulliner omnibuses, Wodehouse wrote that by telling the stories through a story teller, he was able to further and crazier than he could otherwise. He wasn’t asking the readers to suspend their disbelief that something crazy happened. They just had to suspend their disbelief that this guy at a bar was saying crazy stuff.

I’d say that the Mr Mulliner stories go farther than the golf stories as far as the craziness goes. Most of the golf stories are from the hilarious perspective of the oldest member who uses golf as the golf standard for everything. In the world Mr Mulliner’s relatives, anything goes. (Pun intended, thank you Cole Porter)

As much as I love Wodehouse, I can’t say that his work reached for a deeper meaning. The man wrote entertainment but he was one of the best at it.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Jul 8, 2021 4:14 am
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Dunsany’s Jorkens throws me off my game

Lowell Kempf
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For years, I’d read about the Jorkens stories of Lord Dunsany. I’d read a couple of the stories in anthologies but the actual collections themselves seemed to always be out of print. So when I finally saw a e-version of the first collection, the Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens, I snatched it up. (Clearly, not literally)

Short version: it wasn’t what I expected.

I had read that the Jorkens stories had created the Pub Story genre. Which clearly wasn’t the case since it has earlier roots with authors such as Chaucer and Raspe and Wodehouse. Given the fantastic elements in some of those works, I don’t even think that you can claim that Dunsany introduced the idea of fantastic elements to the genre.

However, I had read that Dunsany codified the genre and influenced later authors like Arthur C.
Clarke, Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, Fletcher Pratt, Larry Niven and Spider Robinson. So I had a pretty good idea what I was in for. I expected the dreamy writing of his early works and the tropes I’d seen used in so many later works.

The Jorkens stories (at least the early ones) are grounded in the contemporary world, which has the effect of making them feel more dated than just about everything else I’d read by Dunsany. Not every story takes place in the Billiards Club. And Jorkens, as opposed to merely being a vehicle to tell stories, is much more fleshed out as a character than many pub narrators. In fact, the last two stories form a character arc for him.

Full confession: I struggled to get through the book. Not because it was badly written or because it was complicated. No, just because it was not what I expected. I feel like I honestly can’t assess or judge the book. At some point, I will need to reread it for what it is, not for what it isn’t. And Dunsany kept writing Jorkens stories for decades. I hope to see how they developed.

And, as I ponder it, I realize that plenty of other authors broke the ‘rules’ of pub stories and I had no problem about. I’m pretty sure Spider Robinson broke ALL of them What threw me off my stride was that Jorkens is not like the Gods of Pagona or The Book of Wonder or others. And that’s not fair to the collection or Lord Dunsany.

At the end of day, I want to read more Jorkens stories and reread the ones I’ve read. Lord Dunsany never fails to intrigue and fascinate.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Jun 30, 2021 3:40 pm
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Harrow the Ninth is where things go meta

Lowell Kempf
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Earlier this year, I read Gideon the Ninth and it was the surprise delight of my reading year. So, of course, I had to read the second book in the series, Harrow the Ninth.

… Man, I do not know how to write about this book without spoilers for this first book since everything in Harrow the Ninth is built on how Gideon the Ninth resolved itself. More than that, it’s hard to discuss Harrow the Ninth itself without spoiling it since so much of it is a mystery whose resolution explains not just the mystery’s solution but what was the mystery in the first place.

So, I really enjoyed the book and I’m really glad I read it?

No?

Okay.

As few spoilers as possible

As few spoilers as possible

As few spoilers as possible

The world of The Locked Tomb is one of gothic horror and high science fiction. It is definitely not Warhammer 40K but man, it has some similar vibes. We are talking about a galactic empire that was built on necromancy.

In fact, the undying emperor (who is not stuck in a life support throne) resurrected his entire home solar system, which is clearly our solar system. And now all the planets have death energy instead of life energy (so much that they are only place where necromancers can be born) The heart of the empire is a zombie solar system. I won’t be surprised if it turns out that everyone is functionally undead at the end of the series.

Gideon the Ninth was an adventure story when all is said and done, albeit one that is underpinned by Gideon figuring out her relationships. Harrow the Ninth is a much denser, more complicated read. There are two different stories going on that play with our understanding of what happened in the last book, contradict each other and play with the meta nature of narration.

I will say that many of those questions do get answered and explained by the end of the book. The cosmology of the setting is explored and expanded. And we are left with a whole new set of questions.

Gideon the Ninth was more fun but I think I got a lot more out of Harrow the Ninth. And now I’m annoyed I have to wait at least a year for Tamsyn Muir to write Alecto the Ninth.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Jun 16, 2021 11:07 pm
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Lord Dunsany’s voyage to Mars

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I have been slowly reading The Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens by Lord Dunsany, the first of his Jorkens collections. It took me years to find a copy so I am savoring the book. I mean to write about the whole experience when I am done but one story really struck me.

While most of the stories I’ve read so far with Jorkens are slightly grounded travel stories, Our Distant Cousins veers into serious science fiction. Which also actually makes it feel the most dated.

Spoilers

Spoilers

Spoilers

For a story that was first published in a magazine pretty close to a hundred years ago

It has been said that the Jorkens stories helped codify the pub story (even though example go way back) but this one breaks a lot of the conventions. Eh, it’s Dunsany. He seems to have only followed his own rules.

Our Distant Cousins isn’t actually told by Jorkens but by an associate of his who allegedly made the first voyage to Mars but lost all the proof that he had by the time he made it back to Earth.

The actual plot is honestly an abridged version of the Time Machine by H. G. Wells only with space travel instead of time travel. However, it’s the details that really struck me and stuck with me.

The traveler gets to Mars via a conventional airplane, albeit one with a rocket attached. Honestly, I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually seen that idea used literally.

However, he doesn’t fly through ether or does there turn out to be a breathable atmosphere in space. He actually turns off the engine and uses the momentum of the Earth to to power his trip to Mars. More than that, it takes him thirty days to reach Mars and he describes the silence and boredom of the experience. His head is stuck in a special but faulty oxygen helmet and his body is wrapped in special bandages to deal with no atmospheric pressure.

It’s the last bit that just really stayed with me. Bandages as a space suit. Dunsany actually considered the issues with flying a plan into space. No, they wouldn’t work but they make sense. That part of the story is actually remarkably hard science fiction.

Yeah, landing on a pastoral Mars where grotesque monsters keep humans as livestock sends us straight into fantasy, possible allegorical fantasy. But the space flight part is just neat.

I found out that Dunsany wrote a sequel, the Slugly Beast, where the traveler is lured back to Mars by threatening radio messages. It’s entirely from the viewpoint of Jorkens and the narrator. I think it’s a better, more atmospheric story but it doesn’t have the same science fiction bite.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Jun 2, 2021 3:28 pm
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Jim Starlin and his Infinity Crusade

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When I saw that our local library had just the Infinity Crusade from 1993 as a pair of collected editions, I decided I should actually finish the thing. You see, I did start reading the comic books back in 1993 and quit halfway through.

Okay. Let’s have some background. The Infinity Crusade was the third big crossover event that featured Jim Starlin bringing back Adam Warlock, Thanos and all their related cast after he killed them off in the 70s. Before it was the Infinity Gauntlet and the Infinity War.

And let me get this out of the way right now: The Infinity War and Endgame movies were much better than the comic books. Tighter plots, smaller casts (yes, really!) and better characterization.

By the time the Infinity Crusade rolled around, it was pretty clear even at the time that Marvel was beating a dead horse. It was another cosmic mad conqueror storyline. The fact that Starlin spent a lot of time on a comic relief character that didn’t add anything to the plot or theme makes me wonder how burnt out he was at that point.

Now, I like a lot of Jim Starlin’s stuff. His original Warlock comics were wacky fun. Thanos Quest,
which led up the the Infinity Gauntlet, was much better than the Infinity Gauntlet. And I really liked his apparently forgotten space opera Dreadstar (well, except for the last arc but there was a lot of good stuff before that)

But either he can’t write endings that live up to the rest of the story or he can’t handle a huge cast or the executive meddling gets too much when he has to add in the Avengers and the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man and so on.

The Infinity Crusade is further complicated by the villain being Adam Warlock’s feminine side who has been driven insane by being repressed. That is problematic and misogynistic on so many levels.

I am going to put on my arrogant comic-book guy hat and say that the story would have been vastly better if it turned out that the Goddess was actually benevolent. Like her plan was actually to give everyone in the universe a moment of cosmic awareness, knowing that almost everyone would shrug it off but it would make a difference for a tiny percentage of people. Instead, she’s virtually indistinguishable from Adam’s repressed male side. (Adam Warlock is complicated)

After finally finishing the Infity Crusade almost twenty years later, I can say I’m glad I didn’t play for all the issues back in the day.


Originally posted over at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed May 26, 2021 10:14 pm
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