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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The hard boiled side of Nero Wolfe

Lowell Kempf
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I have been reading a lot of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe this year. It has been an insane, stressful year for the entire world. Sometimes, it’s been hard to focus enough to read but Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin have been reliably able to decompress me. Even so, I have focused much more on the novellas than the book-length works.

Trouble in Triplicate, a collection of the novellas, particularly struck me. Maybe because I’ve read so many this year. However, it was one of the most hard boiled Nero Wolfe pieces I’ve read.

Mind you, Nero Wolfe always has one foot firmly in the hard boiled detective genre. Archie Goodwin serves as a relentlessly snarky narrator who is good with his fists and the ladies. If he wasn’t working for Wolfe, he’d be a one-room, walk-up office, scraping the name Archer off the glass. And they have the traditional, tumultuous relationship with the cops.

However, their comfortable, luxurious lifestyle is definitely at odds with hard-boiled flavor. Archie is a failure at being a raging alcoholic. And they almost always end in a parlor scene because Heaven forbid Nero Wolfe leave his office. Nero Wolfe is an elitist. Really, so is Archie, who is a gourmet and botanical expert by association.

The genteel elements are as much a part of the mysterious chemistry of Nero Wolfe as the hard-boiled elements. But the hard-boiled elements are on particularly strong display in this book. Particularly in the first story, Before I Die which features a mobster getting blackmailed and folks getting gunned down in the street and Archie stuck dodging bullets.

And it works. It’s still Nero Wolfe. Like I said, it’s not much of a stretch.

I found myself thinking of The Big Four by Agatha Christie, the one where Hercule Poirot takes on Fu Manchu. It’s pulp fiction and bad enough that I like to pretend the whole thing is a nightmare Hastings is having after eating too much Welsh rarebit.

It’s not a fair comparison. Trouble in Triplicate sticks it’s pinky toe in slightly different water. The Big Four, thrown together when Christie desperately needed money, hops into a spaceship and takes off into the stratosphere of another genre.

Of course, even in these more action field stories, Nero Wolfe continues to be a arrogant, obstinant genius who desperately needs his snarky assistant to get anything done. Fundamental elements haven’t changed.

(By the way, after a year of constant reading, I’ve come to think of Nero Wolfe as being less misogynistic than chauvinistic, womanizing Archie. Wolfe may not like being around women but seems to respect them more. And there are plenty of men he doesn’t want to be around either)

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Dec 30, 2020 11:20 pm
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Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane is a jerk!

Lowell Kempf
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After I finished Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles, I decided that it was time I finally looked at Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane stories. So, from a young adult series to an immortal, amoral mass murderer. Quite a jump.

I first read about Kane in the 80s in an article in an old Dragon Magazine. However, at the time and for quite a while after that, all of the books were out of print or at least hard to find. Now they are all available as ebooks

What I had read about Kane made me assume he was a punk rock Elric. However, after reading Death Angel’s Shadow, I would also describe him as an erudite Conan with absolutely no moral compass. He does have Elric’s brooding self-pity but it isn’t nearly as moving because all of his issues come directly from his own bad decisions.

Kane is a very weird and fascinating protagonist, in no small part because he is not even remotely heroic. He may be the biblical Caine (he certainly claims to be) He has been cursed to only die through violence and he is not going to give the mad god who cursed him or the world the satisfaction of dying. He is also a master warrior, an expert sorcerer, a polyglot and good at just about everything. Which is admittedly justified since he’s spent thousands of years doing stuff but does make him ridiculously powerful. Oh and apparently his goal in life is to be an evil overlord.

Interestingly, all three stories in Death Angel’s Shadow have Kane on the defense and running away from his bad decisions. Which does create conflict but still doesn’t make him sympathetic. At one point, someone accuses a crusader who has pledged to kill Kane to make the world a better place of doing more evil than Kane. The crusader is a total monster but, come on, Kane’s centuries of doing horrible stuff still makes him worse.

If Elric was written to be the anti-Conan, Kane manages to be the anti-Elric while still being an anti-Conan at the same time. He feels like an experiment of bringing pain and sorrow to misanthropic, misogynistic world. I have heard that the later books are better so I will try them. However, after years of wondering about Kane, I did expect more.

Originally jotted down at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Dec 23, 2020 2:55 pm
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Why the Kane Chronicles made me a Riordan fan

Lowell Kempf
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Every year or so, I reread one of Rick Riordan’s young adult series. This year, I reread his Egyptian mythology trilogy, The Kane Chonicles. (Now that it’s all published, I’ll read the Trials of Apollo sometime soonish)

Rick Riordan has become one of my favorite young adult authors and I really hope our son likes his works when he gets old enough to read them. And the Kane Chronicles was the series that turned me into a fan.

I had read Percy Jackson and the Olympians when it came out. I felt like it was better than a lot of the books that flooded the shelves post-Harry Potter (Indeed, I described The Lightning Thief as Harry Potter as an American jock to friends) However, I felt like it was also pretty uneven. There were a lot of silly, even juvenile touches. And I don’t mind silly. I love silly. But it felt out of place with the more serious stuff.

In the Kane Chronicles, Riordan had a much more consistent tone. He did a much better job with character development. And there was a stronger sense of mythic, vastness of the setting. Riordan had ironed out how to write for middle schoolers and showed his chops as a writer.

I can’t honestly say that the Kane Chronicles are darker and edgier than the earlier series. The serious elements are just as serious. The funny elements are just blended in better. And that also lets Riordan write about more serious topics more effectively.

And that tendency carried on to the Heroes of Olympus and Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series. The latter is actually a strangely effective blend of grim and absurd. Riordan grew into a young adult writer. A bit like comparing The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe with The Magician’s Nephew.

It’s been six or seven years since I first read the Kane Chronicles. Rereading it reaffirmed my faith in Riordan. His books are action movies but they are kind where you care about the characters so the stakes work.


Originally written down at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Dec 18, 2020 5:49 pm
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Hey, Neil Patrick Harris wrote a kid’s book!

Lowell Kempf
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The Magical Misfits by Neil Patrick Harris is the third series (at the very least) I’ve read that uses a Lemony Snicket-style narrator. Which seems incredibly fitting since NPH played Count Olaf in the most recent adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The book itself was a light, breezy read and I did enjoy it. A group of kids come together by a mutual interest in magic tricks and generally helping people out. Each kid is fairly distinct and has room for character growth.

All or almost all of the magic in the book is the smoke-and-mirrors, slight-of-hand, stage magician magic. Instructions on magic tricks can be found throughout the book (including one I hadn’t heard of, which says more about NPH’s choices in tricks than my knowledge of stage magic) I’m not authority on Neil Patrick Harris but I have heard he is trained in stage magic so the inclusions made sense.

There is wiggle room for NPH to add more Merlin/Dumbledore magic in later books. A fortune teller gives the kids some remarkably prescient advice so the series could be edging into magical realism. I’m good either way.

Daniel Handler didn’t create snarky and unreliable narrators with Lemony Snicket. In fact, I have always assumed he was parodying 19th century authors. However, he did create a loopy, over-the-top voice that I’ve seen echoed in works like The Secret Series and The Mysterious Benedict Society. The Magical Misfits fits in with them. (But none of them touch the Kafkaesque bleakness of Handler)

NPH actually has the most grounded use of this style of narration. I can’t say the book is realistic but it is more realistic than any of the others And I enjoyed it enough that I am reserving judgement until I read the second book.



Originally written over at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Dec 9, 2020 4:55 pm
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So Kim Newman really does write fan fic with his own characters?

Lowell Kempf
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I hadn’t planned on blogging about Kim Newman and his Diogenes Club stories again or at least not for a while. And then I read Cold Snap.

Now, I’m not going to go into the plot, beyond the fact that I did enjoy the story and I was happy to see Richard Jeperson again. But the novella has loads and loads of characters, many of which have basically just cameos for all intents and purposes. Honestly, you could have stripped most of them out and the story would have both been the same and strong.

A lot of the characters I recognized from other Diogenes stories. Then, I found myself thinking ‘Isn’t that the vampire lady from those Warhammer Fantasy books?’ Yes, it was and Newman wrote those stories. And doesn’t this concept seem a lot like something I read in a Doctor Who book during the hiatus? Newman wrote that too?!

As I started digging, it rapidly became clear that Cold Snap was a massive cross-continuity crossover of Kim Newman’s writing with many of the characters alternate versions so they could be crammed into the Diogenes Club setting. Kim Newman totally beat fanfic writers to the punch.

This led to some interesting further revelations. One, a lot of books and stories referenced in Cold Snap are out of print. And some of them were written in different genres so the versions of the characters that twigged my interest wouldn’t be what I’d find in their original works. Actually finding the books might not be that rewarding.

Really, in one story, Kim Newman out Michael Moorecocked Michael Moorecock and really did write his own fan fiction.

Sadly, uncovering the meta elements of Cold Snap has probably decreased my enjoyment of the work.


Originally madly scribbled down at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Nov 26, 2020 5:24 pm
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Kim Newman is a strange flavor of brilliant

Lowell Kempf
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I decided that I needed to read more of Kim Newman’s Diogenes Club stories. I’m not going to try and read them all since I’m not sure what books and stories by Newman count and which don’t (I also have to note that only Moriarty and Irene Adler get pinched from the Holmes cannon more often than the Diogenes Club)

Kim Newman’s version of the Diogenes Club has them be the semi-official paranormal investigators of the British government in a slightly quirky alternative history. The first stories I read long ago were about Richard Jeperson, a mod psychic in the 70s with a wardrobe that cannot be believed. However, my interest was renewed when I learned that Newman lovingly deconstructed other eras.

And that’s what makes these stories so fascinating. Newman either clearly loves the genres he’s exploring and skewering or fakes loving them very well. At the same time, he’s deconstructing them, peeling back the edges to show some of the dark implications.

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And, man, the most extreme example that I’ve read so far is ‘Richard Riddle, Boy Detective in “The Case of the French Spy” ‘. It’s a sendup of Enid Blyton’s works, only the free range kid adventurers stumble across a deep one straight out of Lovecraft.

I have a morbid fascination with Blyton. Her work is beloved in England but it’s also mindless dribble that is xenophobic, sexist, classist and obsessed with food. Between Richard Riddle and Five Go Mad in Dorset (thank you, Dawn French), I sometimes think the best side effect of her work is the parodies. (To be fair, I think Chuck Jones’ Dover Boys cartoon is the best thing that came out of of the Rover Boys books)

Admittedly, what makes the Richard Riddle story work (and, as far I know, Newman only wrote this one story in this style, although Richard appears in other works) is that it’s just on the edge of absurdity. That said, the kids are seriously dedicated to being genre savy about the wrong genre, still acting like they’re in a jolly romp while the deep one they freed tears some admittedly naughty men apart.

Although Violet calmly deciding to burn the priory down to prevent any unfortunate questions about the dead people also indicates that these are some pretty cold-blooded kids.

Newman’s use of genre and tropes is fascinating. He doesn’t fully deconstructs them. The rules still apply. But we see enough of the backstage to turn those tropes disturbing. I may be wrong but I am left thinking that he is both a brilliant fan and a brilliant writer.


Originally written down at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Nov 18, 2020 3:05 pm
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Bruce Sterling teaches me some history

Lowell Kempf
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All throughout reading Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling, who found myself constantly thinking ‘What am I reading!!’ and feeling like I was missing something terribly vital to my understanding of this little book.

Which, to be fair, I was. I had never heard of either The Regency of Carnaro or the Free State of Fiume. My understanding of the events is still very, very sketchy by I _ think_ it boils down to a tug of war between Italy and Yugoslavia over the control of the port city that is now called Rijeka after WW I. From what I have read, for a short time, the area became an autonomous zone and can be viewed as a socia experiment.

Sterling’s book could be described as ‘what if it had worked?’

Beyond that, it is a very hard to summarize Pirate Utopia. The protagonist is Lorenzo Secondari, who I have not been able to figure if they were a real historical figure. He is a skilled enough engineer that he is able to get Fiume a functioning infrastructure and manufacturing base. And this ruthless bit of practicality enough for Sterling to exposit how the crazy political theories of the dreamers and poets in Fiume could have actually gotten pulled off.

I realized after I finished the book that it isn’t a continuous series of events. Instead, Sterling picks out points in the timeline that he has created. Points that highlight changes in Fiume and in Secondari’s life. The book has an abrupt end but it ends at the point where the political movement and Secondari about ready to go beyond Fiume.

I am having a very difficult time figuring just what I think about Pirate Utopia. Is it a what if adventure? A warning of the different slippery slopes that fascism can take? A history lesson disguised as a science fiction yarn? A thank you note from Sterling for his years living in Italy?

Well, I know that I will be thinking about this short book longer than it took me to read it. And it did make me look at some history I never knew even existed.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Nov 4, 2020 1:34 pm
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I got to read more Frederik Pohl

Lowell Kempf
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The Tunnel Under the World by Frederik Pohl is a short story that I discovered when I was I was trying to find a book that had The Wall Around the World in it. I didn’t find a copy of that anthology but I did find out that Project Gutenberg had the text for the The Tunnel Under the World.

I don’t think the story would have had the impact on me that it did if I hadn’t just read the Wall Around the World which blithely glosses over the horrifying implications of the setting. The Tunnel Under the World dives headlong into them.

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Seriously, it’s free on Project Gutenberg

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Guy Burckhardt slowly realizes that something that is off with the world. For one thing, every day is always June 15th. For another thing, he is being constantly bombarded by advertising for products he’s never heard of.

More spoilers since the twist is a whopper

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It turns out that the entire town was killed in a massive plant explosion. An unscrupulous businessman copied the brains of as many of the corpses as he could his hands on and put them in tiny robots in a tiny town on a tabletop so he has a a test market that he can do anything to. At the end of the story, Burkhardt is back to being trapped in the endless cycle while the businessman has moved on to political propaganda.

Yes, it turns out to be a horror story.

The whole concept of robbing the dead of their minds for the purpose of market research is successfully shocking because, wow, is that devaluing human existence to a horrifying degree. And, yet, you have to admit, you can imagine someone doing it if they actually could get away with it and turn a profit. And the antagonist wins.

The story was first published in 1955 and, wow, is it cynical. I had flashbacks of both Groundhog’s Day and The Truman Show but this was much more disturbing than those movies. The fact that the antagonist isn’t a theatrical Doctor Doom or Red Skull bad guy but a perfectly believable businessman just makes the story work.

I have read Fredrik Pohl before this but, man, I need to read more. If the Tunnel Under the World is anything to go by, he had an interesting view of human nature.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Nov 2, 2020 4:21 pm
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This is how the magical school genre got started?!

Lowell Kempf
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I have been meaning to read the short story ‘The Wall Around the World’ by Theodore R. Cogswell for years. As I understand it, it was the first work that actually featured a school that taught magic. While Ursula K. LeGuin was the one who really solidified and developed the idea in A Wizard of Earthsea, this story touched on the idea earlier.

I eventually found it in Isaac Asimov presents The Great SF Stories volume 15. That’s the problem with individual short stories. They can be harder to find than full books. That particular anthology focused on stories published in 1953, by the way.

The academy, incidentally, really comes across as a middle school that just happens to teach magic. It doesn’t have the flair or individual touch of, say, Hogwarts, as an obvious example. However, it does actually do the intended trick of making it clear that magic is an every day thing in the setting.

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Even more spoilers

The unnamed magical land of the story is surrounded by a ridiculously big wall. Porgie, the 13-year-old protagonist, figures out how to build a glider and fly over the wall. There he learns that there’s a high tech world on the other side that built the wall to create an environment where magic could develop. In fact, his school teacher is an observer to both track magical development and make sure folks who figure out how to get over the wall end up okay.

My first reaction to the story was ‘Wow, this is so pre-New Wave’ So many of the social issues that the setting brings up are glossed over, particularly how the high tech civilization that created a giant prison camp as an experiment is depicted as benevolent The story is a classic example of science fiction being about how to solve a problem through cleverness. (I blame John Campbell)

Which isn’t to say ‘The Wall Around the World’ is a bad story. It is a silly romp that was fun to read. I definitely enjoyed reading it. And I don’t mind the ‘it was science fiction all along twist’ which wasn’t exactly new even in 1953.

Still, I went in looking for a revolutionary story and got a good but standard yarn with a cute detail. Really, Ursula K. LeGuin earned the credit she gets for developing the idea.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Oct 30, 2020 2:44 am
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Why does scary stuff work?

Lowell Kempf
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It’s almost Halloween. Our six-year-old has been obsessing about Halloween since August. So I feel like I should write about ghost and horror stories/movies/TV shows/authors/board games/RPGs. But man, where to start? I mean, what can I write about Edgar Allen Poe that hasn’t already been written?

Really, between ghost stories, gorror, zombies, vampires, undisclosed generic horror, werewolves, demon types and all of the fun you can have with Cthulhu, there’s a lot of subcategories in the whole ‘scare you’ genre.

Clearly, it touches some kind of nerve on the human race. Perhaps fear fascinates us or is so fundamental that we all can relate to it. According to Paul Eckman, fear is one of the six core emotions (the others are joy, anger, disgust, sadness and surprise and, yes, the Pixar movie Inside Out drew heavily on his studies)

But our love of media that have scary stuff in them is clearly not just related to fear all by itself. Being able to indulge in it safely and in a controlled way lets our minds add joy to the equation which changes everything. I’m not actually worried about a rabid dog attacking me when I read Cujo or zombies when I watch Night of the Living Dead.

(Too much control can remove all the fear, though. I was in a D&D campaign where we mugged a litch. Took a lot of planning and very special circumstances but we did it. And it wasn’t scary at all)

Clearly, while there are lots of specific niches of scary stuff, media that has scary stuff in it is not really a niche. I’d go beyond saying it’s mainstream and go so far as to say that it is universal. And it’s clearly not just for Halloween.


Originally scribbled down in abject terror at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Oct 28, 2020 6:43 pm
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