Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a review

Warning: Spoilers follow.

As I left an IMAX 3D showing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey early Saturday evening, I struggled at first to determine why I experienced such ambivalence about the film. Then I hit on it: Director Peter Jackson has taken what is a tightly-plotted, 300-page novel and turned it into the equivalent of a multi-volume fantasy epic, with all the good and the bad that change entails.

My short review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey deserves the mixed ratings it has received (65% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing). It was a qualified success, with some high points and some low points. It’s good, but not as good as The Lord of the Rings films, in my opinion. And in places it’s downright annoying.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Just where is this guy?

Readers the world round are surely wondering what happened to that guy who writes The Silver Key blog? I wish I had something really cool to report, for example that I've been called in as an emergency consultant on The Hobbit, but alas, no. The answer to my lack of posting these days is: Life, covering high school football, and a side writing project. These things have consumed much of my limited free time and prevented me from posting to the blog. So rather than banging out half-hearted posts I've decided to take an extended break.

Am I burning with the news about Arnold Schwarzenegger reprising his role as Conan, or the muck Hollywood is making out of World War Z? You betcha. Have I been reading genre fiction worthy of critical review? Yes, that too. I just finished up the latest in Bernard Cornwell's ongoing Saxon Stories, Death of Kings, for instance. And a fair bit of swords and sorcery. I've been watching and enjoying The Walking Dead, too (alas, poor T-Dog, we hardly knew ye). I just don't have the time to write about these things with the blowhard attitude and half-baked analysis readers of this blog have come to appreciate and love.

I do plan on coming back and blogging again, but not now, and likely not anytime soon. So for now, a semi- apropos snatch of poetry from the great REH:

I could not bide in the feasting-hall
Where the great fires light the rooms—
For the winds are walking the night for me
And I must follow where gaunt lands be,
Seeking, beyond some nameless sea,
The dooms beyond the dooms.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Zombie Survival Guide, a review

The next time a Class 2 zombie outbreak occurs in my neighborhood, I’ll be well-prepared to deal with the shambling corpses of hungry undead now that I’ve read Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead.

The Zombie Survival Guide dispels exaggerated myths and legends of the undead and instead presents the reader with unvarnished “truths” about zombies. You’ll find information on zombies’ physical strength, sight, hearing, and rate of decay, and the pros and cons of various weaponry for battling the undead (everything from medieval maces and claymores, to M-16s and flamethrowers). It describes various scenarios for identifying early signs of localized (Class 1) outbreaks, to full-blown widespread undead infestation (Class 3). You’ll find best practices for battling zombies in urban settings, in harsh desert and swamp environments, even under the sea. The Zombie Survival Guide tells you how to defend your home by stocking up with key food and supplies, moving to your second floor and destroying all staircases (recommended for Class 2), or how to survive on the run as you move to the most remote and therefore safest parts of the planet in a world-wide zombie apocalypse in which mankind is overrun (Class 4). The best vehicle should an outbreak occur? You might not guess it, but it’s a bicycle. On a bike you can easily outrun the slow, slouching pace of zombies, it will never run out of gas, you can carry a bicycle over rough terrain, and you can maneuver a bike through the inevitable traffic jams that accompany a full-on panic. Motorcycles are very good too, though their noise attracts the undead. Boats are also a secure means of travel, says Brooks, but watch your anchor line—zombies walking on the ocean floor can use it to climb up to your boat. “Hundreds” of hapless victims have died this way, Brooks tells us.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Last Call by Tim Powers, a review

Scott Crane abandoned his career as a professional poker player twenty years ago and hasn’t returned to Las Vegas, or held a hand of cards, in ten years. But troubling nightmares about a strange poker game he once attended on a houseboat on Lake Mead are drawing him back to the magical city. For the mythic game he believed he won did not end that night in 1969—and the price of his winnings was his soul. Now, a pot far more strange and perilous than he ever could imagine depends on the turning of a card. Enchantingly dark and compellingly real, this World Fantasy Award–winning novel is a masterpiece of magic realism set in the gritty, dazzling underworld known as Las Vegas. 

Tim Powers’ Last Call (1992 William Morrow and Co.; 2010 Blackstone Audio, Inc.) is studded with references to old myths, snatches of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” the art of poker playing, and the unique culture and atmosphere of old and new Las Vegas. It contains numerous major and minor characters, overarching themes and subplots, and digressions into probability theory. In other words, it demands close reading and attention to detail. Listening to it in half-hour chunks as I did while driving to work was probably not the best idea, and may have affected my review of the book, but what follows is an honest appraisal.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Plethora of Howard Days Panels on Youtube

If you didn’t make it out to Cross Plains Texas for Robert E. Howard Days this past June (I didn’t, and have not yet made the trip, though it is on my bucket list), despair not: You can experience the panels, vicariously, through the magic of Youtube. Videographer Ben Friberg filmed several of the panels and generously posted them for up for public consumption. They’re all incredibly interesting and fun, if you like this sort of thing. Here’s a quick list of links.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Some thoughts on the purpose of fantasy fiction

The author of another blog I discovered recently, Everything is Nice, recently chose to describe a quote by George R.R. Martin as representative of everything wrong with commercial fantasy fiction. I happen to like the quote quite a bit (you can find Martin reading it aloud in its entirety here), and asked why he felt that way.

Martin (who happens to be the author of the blog, not the actual George RR Martin) responded that:

It plays into the artificial and embarrassing Us versus Them divide that is sadly all too common within the genre community. Beyond the stupidity of jamming his thumb on the scales and simply assigning high status words to the thing Martin likes, however, is the amusing contradiction that those high status words have to come from reality. As Sam says, you certainly couldn't get a bloody steak in reality, could you? At the most basic level, if Martin can't write movingly or beautifully about the strip malls of Burbank (and I'm certainly prepared to believe he can't) then he has no business writing anything. He is basically saying he has no eye, no ear, no empathy. And that is why it is speaks to the problem of commercial fantasy in general.

To which I replied:

I understand what you mean, Martin. Fantasy can certainly be applicable to reality, as Tolkien once wrote. But I guess I would differ with you that Martin’s quote represents everything wrong with commercial fantasy.

What if the “them” in your “us vs. them” comparison is our world, not some particular piece of it? Martin is creating through his imagination another world that never was and never could be, but I would argue that this exercise is nevertheless of worth as it demonstrates our ability as humans to dream and to create. Imagination is something we as humans do, and its fruits (even the otherworldly ones) are thus part of the “real” human condition.

Do you think there is ever a place for other worlds, or must all fiction, even heroic fantasy, engage with our own world? Much of reality does suck, unfortunately; are we ever allowed even brief escape in the pages of a book?

I think Martin’s quote highlights something fantasy can do and strives to do, even if much of it is pedestrian and falls short in the attempt.

Just as a sidenote, I think it’s rather ironic that Martin of all fantasy writers would have chosen this quote, given that by far and away his most popular creation, A Song of Ice and Fire, is quite grim and dark and shares much more common with gritty historical reality (the bloody War of the Roses) than fantasy.

I'm hoping that there will be more debate to come, but what do you think? What function does fantasy serve,  if it isn't set in or applicable to our own world?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Brick-and-Mortar Bookstore Score

Brick and mortar bookstores are as rare as hen’s teeth these days, it seems, and that’s a shame. I enjoy the instantaneous convenience and enormous selection of Amazon and Abebooks, but there’s something about musty old bookstores that online shopping cannot replace. The tactile sensation of picking up books, the joy of utterly unexpected finds, and the atmosphere of a shop devoted to reading and book-selling, are experiences that online delivery mechanisms cannot replicate.

Yesterday I found a wonderful bookstore that reminded me of the unique advantages and pleasures of the real over the virtual: Mansfield’s Books and More in Tilton, New Hampshire. Tilton is a town I had driven through numerous times without a cause to stop, outside of filling a gas tank and the like. But yesterday while playing chauffer on a back-to-school shopping trip with my wife and kids I caught a glimpse of a storefront window in Tilton center that I had previously overlooked. In a brief glance I took in a display of hardcover books in the front window and a few cartons of paperbacks placed outside with a sign indicating a sidewalk sale. My attention piqued, I managed to free myself from the clutches of clothes and shoe shopping with little difficulty and quickly backtracked to Mansfield’s.

Mansfield’s occupies what appears to be a former office building. The main room has a fireplace in one wall with a few overstuffed chairs. A narrow hallway at the back opens up on left and right to six rooms that were presumably individual offices at one time. Most of these smaller rooms were still hung with old, ornate doors with frosted glass panes and other such details, though one clearly served as a small kitchen at one point, complete with a sink. Each room—the main room in the front and the half-dozen at the back—was overflowing, floor to ceiling, with used books, as well as a scattering of other items (the “More” refers to some old movie posters, knickknacks, and used DVDs and CDs).

To read the rest of this post, visit the Black Gate website

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Three Hobbit Films for the LOTR Fans = Trouble

Fans of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings should be thrilled that The Hobbit, originally planned as two feature films, is now slated for three. More Tolkien on screen is a good thing, right?

Surely yes, if what we are getting is indeed more Tolkien. But Jackson’s “bridge” film is not going to be more Tolkien, but more Jackson. And that is not necessarily an encouraging thought.

Due to contractual issues with the Tolkien estate—Jackson is unable to use material from The Silmarillion, The History of Middle-Earth, or Unfinished Tales—this “bridge” film will come from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. Wrote Jackson on his Facebook page:

 “We know how much of the story of Bilbo Baggins, the Wizard Gandalf, the Dwarves of Erebor, the rise of the Necromancer, and the Battle of Dol Guldur will remain untold if we do not take this chance. The richness of the story of The Hobbit, as well as some of the related material in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, allows us to tell the full story of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and the part he played in the sometimes dangerous, but at all times exciting, history of Middle-earth.” 

The appendices are certainly a mine of information, but the stories they tell are scattered, patchy in places, and not written as straightforward narrative. To bridge the events of The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings in a film that neatly connects a series of disparate dots, Jackson must fill in gaps, construct dialogue from scratch, and so on. And that could spell trouble.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On, a review

The 1977 publication of The Silmarillion was a singular event in fantasy fiction. I’m happy to stand corrected, but I can’t think of another book of foundational myths and legends about a fictional, secondary world published prior. But as I mentioned in my introduction to my series Blogging the Silmarillion it also left most critics puzzled, even put-out or angry. Expecting another The Lord of the Rings, many acted with bafflement, others with harsh criticism.

But in the subsequent 35 years opinion seems to be shifting. While it will never be as popular as The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, most fans of Middle-Earth view The Silmarillion as absolutely indispensable. Other genre fans do too, it seems. For example, in a recent vote of over 60,000 genre fans to determine the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy books The Silmarillion checked in at no. 46, proving that it’s more than just a book for the JRRT fanboy.

As for Tolkien scholars The Silmarillion is a goldmine, bringing to life ancient ages of Middle-Earth that were previously only hinted at in poems and appendices to The Lord of the Rings, or in Tolkien’s personal correspondence. The Silmarillion provides us a startlingly new perspective on the workings of free will and fate in Middle-Earth, of the nature of evil, and the problem of death. It showed how Tolkien forged his world from Christian and Pagan influences, including the Old Testament, Celtic myth, and Norse legends. The Silmarillion introduced readers to the eldest days of Middle-Earth, including the “hows” of its creation and the “who” of its chief creator, along with its wide-ranging geography, both pre and post-cataclysm. It also opened a new window into Tolkien’s creative process, including his ingenious method of creating depth by layering “forgotten” texts and “historical” events and myths on top of each other, a technique that produced a three-dimensional world that feels real, and lived in. Soon the debates began about how much of the work was Tolkien’s own vs. that of his son Christopher, who finished and published The Silmarillion after his father’s death with the aid of fantasy fiction author Guy Gavriel Kay.

The incredible significance of The Silmarillion and the exciting new avenues it opened up are summed up in The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On (Walking Tree Publishers, 2007). This collection of six essays includes one previously published piece by Rhona Beare in a now out-of-print introduction to The Silmarillion, but it is completely rewritten for this book. The other five pieces are original scholarship.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Six Sought Adventure: A Half-Dozen Swords And Sorcery Short Stories Worth Your Summer Reading Time

I’ve always enjoyed fantasy fiction in the short form. In an age when a typical series stretches seven-plus doorstopper sized volumes without the guarantee of an actual ending, it’s refreshing to take a quick dip into the pool of the fantastic rather than committing to a read akin to a trans-Atlantic journey in the age of sail.

 If you are new to the heroic fantasy/swords and sorcery genres the following six stories are fine stepping stones for further exploration, at least in my opinion. I’ve deliberately chosen stories written by authors not named Howard or Leiber; REH and Fritz are the best these genres have ever produced but there’s already plenty of ink spilled about them. I obviously have nothing but praise for “Worms of the Earth” or “Bazaar of the Bizarre” but I’m sure most of Black Gate's readers have very likely already read these stories, so I present these six instead.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Monday, July 16, 2012

A holy grail (of sorts) for fans of Tolkien and King Arthur

Sorry for the lack of posts of late, I sincerely hope to get back on a more regular schedule. But here is a bit of news worth sharing: According to this rather sparse, cryptic entry on France, Tolkien's previously unpublished poem "The Fall of Arthur" is planned for a May 2013 release.

"The Fall of Arthur" is a lengthy (954 lines), alliterative, and unfinished work. Tolkien loved reading the Arthurian myths as a boy and in the early 1930s began to write "The Fall," but ultimately abandoned it, though various outlines and drafts survive in addition to the final unfinished text (source: The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond, p. 56). Ultimately Tolkien fell away from the Arthurian stories, which he regarded as too mixed with other elements and influences and lacking enough of Britain's character; the stories were "associated with the soil of Britain but not with English," according to Tolkien. Hence his reason for writing The Lord of the Rings and its supporting legendarium as told in The Silmarillion and elsewhere, which serve as an alternative mythic history of England.

Like "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" I fully expect that this will come and go without huge fanfare or sales. But for hardcore fans of Tolkien and Tolkien scholars, it's huge. Maybe not quite as huge as say, the discovery of Excalibur, or Arthur returning over the sea from Avalon to set our darkening world aright again, but huge nonetheless. And it just might prove to be a cracking good read; again quoting from Scull and Hammond:

Humphrey Carpenter comments in Biography that in his work 'Tolkien did not touch on the Grail but began an individual rendering of the Morte d'Arthur, in which the king and Gawain go to war in "Saxon lands" but are summoned home by news of Mordred's treachery .... It is one of the few pieces of writing in which Tolkien deals explicitly with sexual passion, describing Mordred's unsated lust for Guinever (which is how Tolkien chooses to spell her name .... ' But here Guinever 'is not the tragic heroine beloved by most Arthurian writers'; rather, she is a 'lady ruthless / fair as fay-woman and fell-minded, / in the world walking for the woe of men.'

Hat tip to the Mythsoc listserv for the news.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, a review

Warning: Spoilers ahead; I’m attempting to keep them minor

The good of a book lies in its being read. A book is made up of signs that speak of other signs, which in their turn speak of things. Without an eye to read them, a book contains signs that produce no concepts; therefore it is dumb. This library was perhaps born to save the books it houses, but now it lives to bury them.

--Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

There are days when I feel rather ambivalent about the internet. When I was growing up back in the early-mid 80s the concept of lore still existed. No one I knew could tell you what the symbols on Led Zeppelin 4 really meant; it was all speculation. If you wanted to find out you had to ask a guardian at the gates, perhaps a burnout with a subscription to Rolling Stone or Kerrang who could (sort of) give you the straight dope. Knowledge was concentrated among the few and you had to work hard to earn it.

Of course even back then you had public education and public libraries; the information was still there, just slightly less accessible than today. Now all you have to do is punch everything into Google (buyer beware about the quality of information returned, but you’ll find something). And though much is gained in this process, something is lost.

But most of the time I’m glad I live in the information age. It’s hard to imagine a time in which books were incalculably precious items, patiently copied and illustrated by monks in a painstaking manual process. This is the setting of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), which takes place in a 14th century Medieval monastery, home to a group of monks and a library of old tomes and scrolls. When a monk dies under mysterious circumstances new visitor William of Baskerville is tasked by the abbot to investigate. Over the next seven days a different monk is murdered according to precepts laid out in Revelations, heightening the mystery and the urgency.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Back from vacation with a Black Gate post on WWZ

Well, I'm back from our annual family vacation in New Hampshire, a small slice of fun and relaxation that is almost entirely internet free, even in this day and age of satellites and cell phone towers. So obviously it's been a while since my last post. Time to dust things off and get started again.

If you're interested, I wrote a brief blurb about the sad state of the World War Z film over on Black Gate (nothing too revelatory; I owe them a post every other Thursday and so had to dash something off last night. Gee, I'm really selling it well.) You can read the post here. WWZ is a great book that deserves a great film but I'm not liking what I'm reading about the project so far...

Friday, June 29, 2012

A review of Iron Maiden at the Comcast Center in Mansfield, MA

My apologies for the delay in posting a review of Iron Maiden at the Comcast Center in Mansfield, MA. The morning after the show, groggy from too little sleep and too much beer and loud music, I left for our annual vacation to our family's summer cottage in NH where internet access wavers between extremely spotty and utterly non-existent. By some miracle I have a decent connection so here goes...

It seems that more and more I appreciate the pre-game warmup to concerts as much as the event itself. That was the case with Maiden, as I attended the show with four other friends and Maiden fans. None of them knew each other (I was the common thread connecting them all) but we had a great time nonetheless. Four of us piled into my Chevy Cobalt and drove to Mansfield where we met the other dude (Falze), who had a 3 1/2 hour ride up from NY. The drive and meet-up proved to be an adventure, as after a longer than expected, traffic-snarled ride we found ourselves parked a mile away from Falze in Mansfield's enormous parking lot. And we had a large cooler packed to the gills with ice, beer, water, and half a cherry chocolate cake to carry. But, walking the heavy cooler in two at a time shifts, stopping to reorient ourselves with our cell phones over the din of blasting radios, we made it across the battle-torn, pot-smoke obscured, heavy metal parking lot to Falze.

June 26 also happened to be my birthday and as we stood on the Comcast Center asphalt I remarked that there was no other place I'd rather be for the first day of the 39th year of my life than at an Iron Maiden concert with a cold beer. I don't require much from life, you see, which is the secret to staying happy, incidentally. I had a blast bullshitting and chit-chatting with my friends, and accosting passers-by with concert T-shirts or tattoos that caught my eye. Falze packed us some subs from a place called DiBellas and man, they hit the spot. You were right Falze, they were worth it.

Inside the show I did something I hadn't done in probably 15 years--purchased an Iron Maiden concert t-shirt. It was my favorite Derek Riggs image, Eddie in cowboy hat at a card table from the Stranger in a Strange Land single. I used to buy a concert T at almost every show I attended "back in the day," but that was a different era when they cost $15-20 and I had ample opportunity to wear them. This shirt was--cough $40 cough--but arguably was worth it, as I will undoubtedly be wearing it to any and all future concerts, Iron Maiden or no.

Alice Cooper was the opening act and old Alice was very good. Even in his heyday he had a raspy, scary sounding voice and I detected no difference in his singing style. He played all the usual hits you'd expect ("School's Out," "I'm 18", "Hey Stupid," etc.). "Poison" made an appearance, a song that holds powerful nostalgia for me (Cooper's Trash tour back in 89 or so was the first concert I ever attended). Good stuff.

Maiden was great. Really my only complaint was that Bruce's mike was a bit low in the mix and the guitars too loud. But they played an exceptional setlist, blasting out of the gates with "Moonchild" and never letting up. Some highlights for me included "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son," "The Evil that Men Do," "Wasted Years,"  "Run to the Hills," "Fear of the Dark" and "Aces High." I was really pumped to hear "The Phantom of the Opera" which works exceptionally well in concert. The only headscratcher (and it was a complete puzzle why they played it) was "Afraid to Shoot Strangers," an obscure song off one of their lesser-regarded albums (Fear of the Dark). Dickinson dedicated the song to the late Charlton Heston. I scooted out and grabbed a beer during "Afraid," returning just as the band kicked it back into high gear with "The Trooper." During the beer break I attempted to get the Comcast Center employee to admit that $9.25 was very expensive for a single 16 oz. Coors Light. She smiled, and almost caved, but she had to toe the company line. She wished me happy birthday and my mouth sagged open in surprise as I asked her by what brand of evil sorcery she knew that fact--until my buddy Scott dope-slapped me.

"She's holding your driver's license, you dummy."

Hey, what can I say, I was riding a buzz.

So yeah, fun night, and if you can get out and catch a stop on the Maiden England tour I recommend it quite highly.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Metal Friday Special Edition: Maiden Countdown, "Killers"

Imagine it's 1981 and you're a member of Iron Maiden. Your lead singer, Paul Di'Anno, has just left/been kicked out of the band, and although you've got two well-received albums under your belt, your future is very much in question. In comes a shortish dude with a mullet, Bruce Dickinson, front man for Sampson, to audition for the vacancy.

He launches into a Maiden hallmark, "Killers." The rest is history, as was Di'Anno.

I hope to post a review of tomorrow's show at some point this week. Until then, Up the Irons!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories 11, a review

From 1975 to 1988 Daw books published The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories, an anthology edited initially by Lin Carter and later by Arthur W. Saha. I own only Vol. 11 but after reading it I’m now inclined to seek out more in the series.

Vol. 11 was published in 1985 and by then Carter’s reign as editor had given way to Saha. Saha has a rather interesting and wide-ranging background; according to Wikipedia he served in the Merchant Marine during WWII, is credited with the patent for fire-resistant paint used on early space satellites, hung around Beat poets, was a member of Mensa, and in 1967 was credited with coining the term “Trekkie”. Matching his experiences and personality Saha here put together an eclectic combo of stories that mostly works.

My primary complaint with Vol. 11 is again one of unfulfilled expectations. When you’ve got a cover like that pictured at right I was expecting more of a swords and sorcery bent. There are certainly a few S&S stories inside, but Vol. 11 is equal parts horror and magical realism, with a dash of romance and humor. Yet you’ve got a cover featuring a jacked, axe-wielding dude on the back of a giant snake, about to battle a giant owl-riding knight in plate armor, all taking place beneath the gaze of a half-naked lass lashed to a pole (for the record, there is no story featuring dueling snakes and owls, unfortunately—though there is a fair maiden lashed to a pole). So … yeah. Don’t judge a book by its cover and all that.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Metal Friday Special Edition: Maiden Countdown, "The Clairvoyant"

Continuing my countdown to the Maiden England tour (holy shit--it's only four days away), today I pause to recognize and celebrate the greatness that is "The Clairvoyant," again off Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.

Here's a great live version from the Seventh Tour of a Seventh Tour, circa 1988 or 89, I imagine.

Whenever I hear Steve Harris' bassline something akin to an electric shock courses through my body, then my heart starts to race when Dave Murray plays that familiar riff. That's how much I freaking love this song. It exalts the spirit.

Four days away. I can "Feel the sweat break on my brow" in anticipation.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Q&A With Tolkien and the Great War Author John Garth on Michael Martinez’ Middle-earth website

As a subscriber to the Mythsoc listserv I was very grateful to find a link from Michael Martinez—proprietor of the fine website—to a recent interview conducted with J.R.R. Tolkien scholar John Garth, author of Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003). It’s a fascinating read and worth checking out; you can find it here.

Some reviewers have dubbed Tolkien and the Great War the best book on Tolkien that has yet been written. I wouldn’t go that far (for the record that book is Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth) but it is arguably the best book on Tolkien in the last decade. While Humphrey Carpenter’s biography is still the seminal work on the life and times of Tolkien, it brushes only lightly over his military service. Tolkien’s experiences with the Lancaster Fusiliers are stamped all over The Lord of the Rings, as Garth ably demonstrates in Tolkien and the Great War, and so any complete understanding of the influences of Tolkien’s works must account for his World War I experiences.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Metal Friday Special Edition: Maiden Countdown. "The Evil That Men Do"

Wow, it's hard to believe that it's only 11 days until Iron Maiden plays the Comcast Center in Mansfield, MA. Look for a heavy rotation of my favorite Maiden songs in the coming days as I gear up for my favorite band of all time.

Since this tour is an homage to Maiden England and reportedly features the same stage set and props from the Seventh Son tour, I'll start with one of my favorites from that album, "The Evil that Men Do."

As a man, I can definitively say that we do have an evil streak (typically surfacing during heavy drinking) and it almost always comes back to bite us in the ass, hence it does live on and on. Bruce, you were right.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Optimistic literature vs. GrimDark

Presented without comment:

He bent down, scratched the black dirt into his fingers. He was beginning to warm to it; the words were beginning to flow. No one in front of him was moving. He said, "This is free ground. All the way from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was. Here you can be something. Here's a place to build a home. It isn't the land--there's always more land. It's the idea that we all have value, you and me, we're worth something more than the dirt. I never saw dirt I'd die for, but I'm not asking you to come join us and fight for dirt. What we're all fighting for, in the end, is each other."

—Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels 

 “Who cares who’s buried where?” muttered Craw, thinking about all the men he’d seen buried. “Once a man’s in the ground he’s just mud. Mud and stories. And the stories and the men don’t often have much in common.”

 —Joe Abercrombie, The Heroes

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Audio zombies: A review of We’re Alive: A Story of Survival, season one

As a lover of all things zombie I leapt at the chance to review the first season of We're Alive: A Story of Survival, the first season for Following is the text of that review.


Uneven and slightly amateurish, but also fun, mildly addictive and highly listenable, We’re Alive: A Story of Survival, the first season (Modern Myth Productions, LLC) should appeal to fans of the zombie/post-apocalyptic/survivalist genres.

Unlike most audio books, which typically feature a single narrator reading text in unadorned style, We’re Alive is an audio drama. It employs a large cast, incorporates a wide range of sound effects, and is scripted in a way that caters to the ear, emphasizing dialogue and interpersonal relationships over lengthy descriptive narrative. Our minds are left to fill in the gory details, and it works. It’s simultaneously fresh and retro, reminding me of what the old radio shows of yesteryear must have been like. We’re Alive was launched and remains an ongoing podcast (check it out here: but you can obtain the entire first two seasons from Blackstone Audio, Inc.

The storyline is about what you’d expect: A zombie apocalypse strikes without warning, quickly overwhelming most of the population. Three young Army reservists (Michael, Angel, and Saul) commandeer a humvee and seek out survivors in downtown Los Angeles. After rescuing a couple civilians they find an apartment building, clear it of zombies, and begin to fortify it, rigging it up with a generator and stocking up on food, water, and ammunition. More survivors eventually trickle in and/or are rescued by the group, including Burt, an aging Vietnam veteran who acts and sounds a lot like Clint Eastwood. Soon there’s a small but thriving community holed up in the apartment building.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What I've read this year

Here's the list of books I've read to date in 2012. Note that a couple are audiobooks, so I use the term "read" loosely here. Links provided to any titles for which I've written a review.

  1. Unfinished Tales, JRR Tolkien
  2. The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss
  3. The Cold Commands, Richard Morgan
  4. Tolkien on Film: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, Janet Brennan Croft ed.
  5. Seven Princes, John Fultz
  6. Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, Brian Rosebury
  7. The Heroes, Joe Abercrombie
  8. Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, L. Sprague de Camp
  9. Styrbiorn the Strong, E.R. Eddison
  10. The Well of the Unicorn, Fletcher Pratt
  11. The Modern Scholar: Faith and Reason: The Philosophy of Religion, Peter Kreeft
  12. Strange Wine, Harlan Ellison
  13. Grendel, John Gardner
  14. The Hook, Donald Westlake
  15. Carnage and Culture, Victor Hanson
  16. Conan: Red Nails, Robert E. Howard, Karl Edward Wagner ed.
  17. The Dark Barbarian, Don Herron ed.
  18. Conan, The People of the Black Circle, Robert E. Howard, Karl Edward Wagner ed.
  19. The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil
  20. The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
  21. The Children of Odin, Padraic Colum
  22. Red Moon and Black Mountain, Joy Chant
  23. No Regrets, Ace Frehley
  24. Brak vs. the Sorceress, John Jakes
  25. The Dragon Lord, David Drake
  26. We’re Alive: A Story of Survival, season one

I'm on pace for 56 titles this year, a few more than I read in 2011. Right now I'm about 2/3 of the way through Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead, sequel to Ender's Game.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Metal Friday: "Left Hand Black" by Danzig

Yeah, the safe choice here would have been "Mother."

Well, Metal Friday ain't about safe choices, mother f-er (so says the guy who self-edits swears from his blog).

Anyways, I loved this one back in the day, still do. Turn it up, tear off your shirt and pretend you're Glenn Danzig, and enjoy your weekend.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A brief tribute to the stories of Ray Bradbury

I came to Ray Bradbury at what is likely a later age than most. I never had to read Fahrenheit 451 in school; if I read one of his short stories as a student I have no recollection. Several years ago, in a desire to start filling in some gaps I had in classic genre fiction, I gave Fahrenheit 451 a try. It was a powerful read and made a profound impact on me. It prompted me to seek out more Bradbury—and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Since then I’ve marveled in the wonders of Dandelion Wine, The Golden Apples of the Sun, The October Country, The Halloween Tree, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Martian Chronicles. If somehow you haven’t read any Bradbury yet my advice is to pick any of the above titles and dive in. I’d recommend one over the others, but there’s no need: They’re all pretty much brilliant. You won’t be disappointed.

I’ve always been a little leery of science fiction and have read far more deeply of fantasy. Rightly or wrongly, my perception is that SF worships at the altar of technology, and is fixated upon cold, clinical subject matter for which I have little interest. But if the genre contained more books like The Martian Chronicles, I might view it a lot differently (a parenthetical aside: Though it may be the subject of a catchy song, to call Bradbury “the greatest sci-fi writer in history” isn’t accurate. Dark fantasy, horror, soft sci-fi, traditional literary fiction—Bradbury has written in them all, and sometimes all at once. He is in many ways genre-defying). Bradbury’s stories are in tune with our humanity and his fiction is life affirming. They remind us that We’re human, and we’re alive, damn it. Bradbury often said that he loved life and was driven to write not only by his love of libraries and of reading, but of the very act of living itself. And that’s potent fuel for a lifetime of stories.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Godspeed, Ray Bradbury

I'll follow up with another post later this week, but in case you haven't heard the news already: Ray Bradbury died at age 91.

Bradbury was probably my favorite living author and an amazing talent. He'll be missed.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Dragon Lord by David Drake, a review

Some twenty years before TheWarlord Chronicles, a grim and gritty take on the Arthurian mythos by historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell, David Drake’s The Dragon Lord (1978) covered the same war-torn ground, employing a similar historical Dark Ages realism in the telling. Imagine Arthur as a power-hungry, petulant warlord with a clubbed foot; Launcelot as a hulking Roman Gaul, arrogant and bullying; and Merlin a half-crazed sorcerer barely in control of his own overestimated powers of magic, and you have the basic flavor of Drake’s debut novel.

Cornwell’s trilogy is a good deal superior to Drake’s effort, as the latter is marred by flaws perhaps forgivable of a first time novelist, including a choppy, uneven narrative and an abrupt, rather unsatisfying ending. But The Dragon Lord has a curious power of its own, perhaps because it manages to successfully straddle both the historical fiction and fantasy genres; it feels something like the Northern-inspired novels of Poul Anderson. If you like that stuff, you’ll probably like The Dragon Lord.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Metal Friday: "Raining Blood" by Slayer

I have a threshold when it comes to heavy metal. At some indefinable point of heaviness I personally find that the music loses its artistry and appeal. "Cookie Monster" lyrics and a cacophonous wall of thudding, high speed drums and screeching guitars turn me off, thus I personally have no use for bands like Cannibal Corpse and their ilk.

Slayer is about as far on the "heaviness" scale as I like to go, but I do like them a lot. "Raining Blood" is a classic featuring one of the all-time great metal riffs. The sound of rain and those drums kicking in still gives me a chill, decades after I first heard it. In my opinion this is heavy metal at its most brutal and primitive (played live the bit from 2:10 to 2:38 results in an instant mosh pit; I've seen these guys in concert and the reaction is pavlovian). Yes, there are "heavier" bands, but Slayer still remains recognizable as music--a savage and scary brand of music, but one performed by talented musicians. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Turn it up, but not too loud, lest you frighten your household.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Brak vs. the Sorceress: A really bad read

Ever the optimist, I managed to find a silver lining in the extreme suckiness of John Jakes’ 1977 novel Brak vs. the Sorceress, though I struggled mightily to do so.

If nothing else, it proves how talented Robert E. Howard was as a writer.

Howard could take the raw elements of a sword and sorcery story and make them come alive in unforgettable tales; in the case of Brak vs. the Sorceress one learns that muscled warriors in loincloths rescuing damsels in distress can also make for really, really bad camp.

I wish I had something good to say about this book, but I don’t. It’s not just derivative and lazy (though it is that, in spades), but it also serves as an instructive example in the art of bad writing. Brak vs. the Sorceress opens with a four-page infodump of cliché fantasy that is probably a recap of the previous book in the Brak series. I can’t be bothered to look it up and figure out whether that’s the case. Regardless, it proves utterly unnecessary to the remainder of the thinly plotted story. Here’s the description of the plot from the back of the cover, a poorly done run-on sentence that still makes the story sound much better than it actually reads:

Making his way south toward the golden land of Khurdistan, Brak must first traverse the desolate territory of the Manworm—a land gripped by terror of things unknown and awful—a land of unseen watchers and horrifying riddles—a land ravaged by the evil of Nordica Fire-Hair, the beautiful, hypnotic sorceress whose occult experiments include human sacrifice. To save the land and its terrorized people, Brak joins forces with the ailing Lord Stann and begins one of his most incredible adventures.

Basically the whole story is about how Brak accepts a mission solely to avenge the slaying of his pony and to teach a spirited woman a lesson in humility. I’m not making this up. From the book: To her the life of a pony was a small thing, and therein lay her evil. To him the pony’s life mattered much. His choice was clear-cut. He would not slink away. He would punish her. He was Brak, a man.

Got that? He’s a man, and she’s a wicked pony-killing woman. She must pay the price!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Metal Friday: "Beyond the Realms of Death" by Judas Priest

All right, I probably could have picked a slightly more upbeat song headed into the much-needed Memorial Day weekend. But I had this one on the brain and could not shake it, perhaps because it's one of the finest heavy metal anthems ever recorded.

The lyrical content of "Beyond the Realms of Death" is downbeat to say the least; I'm not sure why the prosecution in the Vance-Belknap trial  (a tragic but absolutely farcical bit of metal history) spent so much effort digging for subliminal messages in "Better by You, Better than Me" when this song is already on Stained Class. Fishing for suicidal messages is unnecessary in "Beyond the Realms of Death," whose meaning bites deep and chills like the first bitter winds of winter:

I've left the world behind
I am safe here, in my mind
I'm free to speak, with my own kind
This is my life, this is my life,
I'll decide not you

Keep the world, with all its sin
It's not fit for living in

A while back I rated the top 10 heavy metal singers of all time and put Rob Halford at the top of that list. While his is a wavering position, and could easily be usurped by  the likes of Bruce Dickinson or Ronnie James Dio depending on my particular mood that day, "Beyond the Realms of Death" stands as an epic testimony for Halford's greatness as a singer. I mean, he's good on this song, m'kay?

Here's another live version from 1978 that's worth watching--Halford kills this live. Odd outfit though:

Blind Guardian also does a wonderful cover of this song that I recommend seeking out. Turn it up!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Of Red Moon and Black Mountain and the anxiety of Tolkien’s influence

The shadow of The Lord of the Rings is long, indeed. In the 1960s Frodo lived and the reading public was hungry for more, and derivative works like The Sword of Shannara met that demand. That pattern continued into the 1980s with the publication of works like Dennis McKiernan’s Iron Tower trilogy, the series showing the clearest Tolkien “influence” of them all and one that literally provided more of the same. Now, this stuff wasn’t all bad; it filled a need and offered a safe, enjoyable formula. I willingly read many of these works back in the day and occasionally still do. But decades later many of the Tolkien clones haven’t aged all that well. I seem to have a lot less patience for them these days, even though I understand the environment in which they were written, and can appreciate that avoiding the influence of The Lord of the Rings 30-40 years ago must have been very difficult, if not impossible.

Take Joy Chant’s Red Moon and Black Mountain (1970). It’s well-written, not hackwork by any stretch. In 1972 the Mythopoeic Society bestowed its Fantasy Award  upon the novel, denoting it as a work that best exemplified “the spirit of the Inklings.” Red Moon and Black Mountain has an unquestionable Tolkien-Lewis quality about it, if by spirit one means rewriting The Lord of the Rings with the framing device of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe tacked on. After a solid start it descends into full-on Tolkien-clone, which probably explains why it’s largely forgotten today.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website

Friday, May 18, 2012

Metal Friday: "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" by Metallica

Remember when Metallica was a good--pardon me, a great band? Arguably the best metal band on the planet? I do. From roughly 1981-90 Metallica was on the top of the heavy metal mountain, almost untouchable with a catalog that included the immortal Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and And Justice for All. Metallica (aka The Black Album), released in 1991, was a decent album but was deliberately written for a mainstream audience and marked the beginning of a long decline for the Los Angeles quartet.

But going back to those first four albums... pure gold. I've pinpointed Metallica's peak moment, right down to the year, album, and song--Welcome Home (Sanitarium) on 1986's Master of Puppets. This is their best, in my humble opinion. Your mileage may vary, of course, but if you don't like this song then you probably don't like heavy metal. I'll still like you, just maybe not quite as much as before. Turn it up!

The Avengers: That's entertainment

After much anticipation and delay I finally got to see The Avengers on Wednesday night. While I wouldn't quite put it up for a best picture nomination, it's non-stop entertainment and 2 1/2 hours of your life you'll spend with an ear-to-ear grin on your face. It's action almost start to finish, with a fun sense of humor (I laughed out loud 4-5 times; there are some great one liners), and plenty of heart-swelling, feel-good, superhero moments as well. Highly recommended.

I'm rather an easy sell for director Joss Whedon. As a kid I read three comics on a regular basis: Captain America, The Savage Sword of Conan, and The Avengers (with a smattering of other titles thrown in). I've still got my old issues. From time to time I've debated selling them off, but I can't seem to pull the trigger. First of all I doubt I would get back what I paid for them, but secondly I have too many fond memories wrapped up in these stories.

I read The Avengers faithfully from roughly 1984-88, a period highlighted by an epic battle at the Avengers mansion against the Baron Zemo led Masters of Evil, a powerful group of evil superheroes that included the Wrecking Crew, Absorbing Man, Goliath, Mr. Hyde, the Fixer, Blackout, and others. That was a great storyline. I remember being almost physically shaken when the Masters beat Hercules into a coma and nearly killed him, roughed up Captain America and tore up priceless photographs of his friends and family in front of his face, and tortured and permanently injured poor Jarvis the butler.

Back then in the pre-CGI days there was no way you could realistically portray the powers of characters like Thor and the Hulk on film. Even Captain America--a human being at the absolute peak of human strength, speed, and endurance--could not be realistically portrayed by an actor given the limitations of the special effects of the time. Today of course it's a very different story, as The Avengers has proven. The only limitation is the budget.

What really gives this film heart is its casting. I've never seen any of the Iron Man films but I already cannot imagine anyone other than Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Stark. All the actors are good but Downey Jr. was clearly the best. I was pleased to see Captain America emerge as the leader and rally the rest of the team and the local cops on the streets of Manhattan. At times Cap, Hawkeye and Black Widow seemed hopelessly overpowered and out of place amongst such heavy hitters as Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man, but Cap's true strength is his leadership, his cool demeanor under fire, natural charisma, and an ability to bring together a disparate group of heroes. He also has arguably the best line in the film ("Hulk--smash") though Thor's "he is adopted" (in reference to Loki) is pretty close. Seeing Thor and Hulk go toe-to-toe was worth the price of admission alone (what does it say that I would pay to watch an hour of them fighting).

I'm already looking forward to the sequel, and would love one day to see The Avengers tangle with Zemo and co. on the big screen.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A memorable Midway meeting: Bob Watson, veteran of Omaha Beach

While walking through the interior of the massive USS Midway this past weekend in all its stunning glory, admiring the vintage and modern planes and the cavern-like interior of the hangar deck, I came upon an elderly gentleman in fatigues sitting in front of a collage of photos. On his head was a familiar black cap sewn with gold lettering, the kind worn by members of the military to commemorate either the branch of the service in which they served or the engagement in which they fought. These hats always get my attention.

Truth be told I didn't even notice the man's battle ribbons at first, nor the Purple Heart on his chest. I was too busy gaping at the two words on his cover that chill the soul of anyone with even a passing knowledge of WWII: Omaha Beach.

Bob Watson , U.S. Sixth Naval Beach Battalion, was among the first waves of U.S. soldiers to hit Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6 1944. He was just 18 years old. When I saw him on the Midway he was just finishing up speaking with another gentleman and his wife. Passers-by occasionally glanced his way, perhaps pausing to look over his photos of Omaha, once and a while stopping and thanking him for his service. He should have been swarmed by thankful citizens. Take a look at his story on the site I've linked to. His landing craft hit a teller mine on the top of a submerged wooden obstacle, a devious construction that was part of Hitler's famous Atlantic sea wall. The ensuing explosion blew off the front door of the craft, killing more than half of the crew. Dazed and injured Watson somehow made it to shore where he was thrust immediately into the Army firing line. Later he helped to clear the beach of obstacles with a bulldozer while still under German fire. It's amazing stuff. I got to hear Watson's story and much more, speaking with this kind old warrior for the better part of an hour.

Watson's collage includes photos of him shaking hands with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, taken on the eve of the debut of Saving Private Ryan. One of the more interesting bits from our talk was when Watson relayed his conversation with Spielberg, who had asked Watson what he liked and disliked about Ryan. "The landing scene was accurate, though not quite as bloody as what really happened that day," said Watson, noting that body parts and mangled corpses were everywhere while the ocean seemed on fire with exploding shells and burning gasoline. In general he thought it was an excellent film and a compelling portrayal of the war. His major criticism of the film? "I told Spielberg: 'Who were these guys (actors)? They're too old. All the guys I knew were almost all 18, 19 years old.'" Watson was just 18 when he hit the carnage on the beach. The thought of a bunch of 18 year olds whose first experience of combat was Omaha is sobering and horrifying. After almost an hour I shook his hand for the last time, thanked him profusely for his heroism and service, and was on my way.

I'm tempted to leave this post at that but I can't resist a bit of moralizing.

The same day Jessica Sanchez from American Idol was invited out to the Midway for a special performance  for her hometown fans. On the top deck Sanchez was surrounded by easily a thousand-plus screaming fans with handmade signs and cameras, hoping for a glimpse of a 16-year-old whose claim to fame is a good voice and some face time on a mediocre television program. Now, I have absolutely no hard feelings toward Sanchez, she seems like a nice kid, and I wish her the best in her singing career. I just found the whole cult of personality mentality a bit disheartening when the real celebrity was below decks. I couldn't help but feel that the incongruity of the situation is a rather sad reflection on the current state of our culture. Our heroes are in the history books--or in the case of Watson, living history. Not on TV. We have it all backwards.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Back, and with more Red Nails

Whew, I'm back from a week-long, stressful business trip to San Diego during which I had no time to blog. But now that I'm home again I'll be getting back on track with some new posts (including a great piece of WWII history I plan on sharing here).

As it turns out today posted a recent podcast on Robert E. Howard's "Red Nails" in which I was invited to participate. I'm definitely more comfortable writing than speaking but I nevertheless had a lot of fun with this rare occasion to talk about one of one my favorite authors (my wife and kids aren't particularly interested in hearing about the Hyborian Age over dinner, what can I say).

You can listen to the podcast here. The entire story is read first by Gregg Margarite from Librivox, followed by our discussion.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Metal Friday: "Hail and Kill" by Manowar

I'm still not sure whether Manowar take themselves seriously. With a lyric like this:

May your sword stay wet
Like a young girl in her prime

it's not immediately apparent.

But I take them seriously as musicians; backed by the power of singer Eric Adams Manowar has always been a favorite of mine, and "Hail and Kill" off of 1988's Kings of Metal is one of their best. If you're a fan of music about riding into battle with bloody axe held high, and pillage and slaughter, and gorging yourself on beef and ale afterwards, Manowar has the market cornered. Turn it up!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Children of Odin by Padraic Colum, a review

In his “Introduction to The Elder Edda” (from The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun), J.R.R. Tolkien writes of the broad, multi-general appeal of Old Norse poetry:

It remains true, all the same, that even robbed of their peculiar and excellent form, and their own tongue whose shape and peculiarities are intimately connected with the atmosphere and ideas of the poems themselves, they have a power; moving many even in school or pre-school days in filtered forms of translation and childish adaptation to a desire for more acquaintance.

In other words, you don’t have to be able to read Old Norse in its native tongue to enjoy the myths and legends of Odin and Loki and Thor, of the war of the Giants and Aesir and Vanir, and of Ragnarok and the ending of the world. The characters and stories have a power all their own, regardless of the language in which they’re told or the particular form they take, be it alliterative verse or child-accessible plain narration. Which is why I derive such great pleasure in owning and reading Padraic Colum’s The Children of Odin.

Published in November 1920, The Children of Odin would have been available to Tolkien (1892-1973) and perhaps he too read and enjoyed Colum’s work. One wonders what he would have made of the volume. It certainly meets his criteria of being possessed of a heady northern power, even while remaining accessible to younger readers.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Metal Friday: "NM156" by Queensryche

All this talk of the Singularity and out of control technology got me thinking of one of my favorite metal bands from back in the day: Queensryche.

"NM156" is from The Warning album and takes a decidedly darker view of our technological future than that theorized by Ray Kurzweil, predicting a world in which "Machines Have no Conscience." It's got all the hallmarks of Queensryche's best material, including thoughtful lyrics and wonderful guitar work by Chris DeGarmo and amazing vocals by Geoff Tate.

Have we come too far to turn around? Are we doomed by our own hands, destined to be enslaved by machines? I don't know... I just know that I want to turn up some Queensryche about now. Enjoy.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

33 years to immortality. Maybe.

In 2045 we will reach Event Horizon, aka the Singularity. In that year we will transcend biology and our bodies will meld with machines. “There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality,” predicts author Ray Kurzweil in his 2005 treatise The Singularity is Near.

Though it built computer intelligence, humanity will be surpassed by its creation. Powered by artificial intelligence, machines will design their next generation without human intervention, growing exponentially beyond all human potential. These machines will not only be smart, but indistinguishable from humans. Writes Kurzweil: “Within several decades information-based technologies will encompass all human knowledge and proficiency, ultimately including the pattern-recognition powers, problem-solving skills, and emotional and moral intelligence of the human brain itself.”

Kurzweil’s predictions of the Singularity are optimistic: Rather than being reduced to ineffectual dinosaurs headed for slow extinction, or wiped out in some Terminator-like rise of the machines, we will merge with technology, and our bodies will no longer be subject to disease and weakness and age. “We can expect that the full realization of the biotechnology and nanotechnology revolutions will enable us to eliminate virtually all medical causes of death,” writes Kurzweil.

So 33 years until immortality. But what sort of a life will we lead in this Brave New World of man-machine perfection?

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Metal Friday: "Falling off the Edge of the World" by Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath's wheelhouse years were roughly 1980-1981, when it released Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules back-to-back with Ronnie James Dio as vocalist. Not that Osbourne-fronted Sabbath wasn't great (they were), but for a short period with Dio they were sublime.

I've always identified very strongly with the apocalyptic/escapist lyrical subject matter of "Falling off the Edge of the World." Not so much about "closing the door" (I'm not that deep in despair; no worries), but rather the bit about "living well out of my time." I too should be at the table round, with Dio on my right and Launcelot on the left, ready to ride out in search of the Grail or rock the night with electric axe. Instead I'm a computer jockey at a desk all day. Oh well, one can dream.

On top of its wonderful thematic material, "Falling off the Edge of the World" features a great, deep, powerful riff by Tony Iommi, a great bassline, and of course Dio at the top of his game. A tough combo to beat. I'm also a sucker for the epic and that certainly describes "Falling off the Edge of the World" with its languid intro, morphing to a heavy drumbeat like the footsteps of an approaching doom, and finally switching to a high-gear eruption of sound at 2:07.

Turn it up, and enjoy.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Robert E. Howard “Red Nails” podcast Saturday

“Five dead dogs!” exclaimed Techotl, his flaming eyes reflecting a ghastly exultation. “Five slain! Five crimson nails for the black pillar! The gods of blood be thanked.”

--Robert E. Howard, "Red Nails"

This Saturday I'll be taking part in a podcast “readalong” of Robert E. Howard’s “Red Nails,” hosted by Jesse Willis of It's called a readlong as it will feature an unabridged reading of the story, followed by commentary.

“Red Nails” is one of my favorite tales of Conan of Cimmeria. It was the last story Howard wrote about his most famous creation, completed just three months before he died and published posthumously as a serial in the pages of Weird Tales. For those unfamiliar with the story, here's a brief outline: Conan and the beautiful but deadly Valeria of the Red Brotherhood enter the ancient, forgotten city of Xuchotl (they are more or less chased inside by a rampaging dragon/dinosaur). While at first the city appears deserted, the pair soon discovers that the final stages of a centuries-old blood feud between two warring tribes (the Xotalancas and Tecuhlti) is playing out to its grim, apocalyptic end. Into this incendiary mix Howard tosses a crawling monster from the crypts, a mad sorcerer, and dark magic. The story culminates with a murderous orgy of violence in the labyrinthine halls of the city. Awesome.

While preparing for the podcast I re-read the story and also took the opportunity to bust out Conan Saga #9 (pictured), featuring a wonderful adaptation of the story by Roy Thomas and legendary artist Barry Windsor-Smith. I bought this issue in 1988 or so and am proud to have it in my collection.

I appreciate the invite and I’m very much looking forward to the podcast. Not only is it a rare chance to talk about one of my favorite authors, but one of the other guests is supposed to be REH celeb Al Harron of The Blog that Time Forgot, a fine writer, scholar, and gentleman whose byline once appeared alongside my own at the now defunct The Cimmerian website. It should be fun! The gods of blood be thanked, indeed...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review of Richard Morgan's The Cold Commands on Mythopoeic Society

I've written the piece many (some? none?) of you have been waiting for: a review of Richard Morgan's The Cold Commands, book two of his A Land Fit For Heroes trilogy. It appeared today over on the Mythopoeic Society website. Linkage here.

You might remember my previous critical posts about Morgan. I still utterly disagree with his statement that The Lord of the Rings is for children/a simple tale of good vs. evil (see Gollum, Denethor, Boromir, Frodo's "failure" and its implications, etc. for numerous examples to the contrary). I was surprised to have Morgan actually drop by and comment on the latter post, which was unexpected and in good form, I thought.

As I stated in my review I do give credit where credit is due: With The Cold Commands Morgan wrote a pretty good sequel to The Steel Remains. Not great, but an improvement, and a solid work of fiction that belongs firmly to the swords and sorcery tradition, even though it is the middle book of a planned trilogy and thus breaks the traditional S&S short form. I'll certainly read book three to see where this all ends up.

The Cold Commands is very much Grim and very Dark, so if that's not your cuppa tea stay away. But as I state in the review there are signs of something developing beyond the series' apparent philosophical core that everyone is equally shitty so life is equal to shit/we fight purely for mercenary, selfish reasons/etc. Though the jury is still out.

My review of The Steel Remains is here.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Metal Friday: "Jerusalem" by Bruce Dickinson

Someone recently forwarded me a link to an article listing the top 10 heavy metal albums of the 1990s. They asked for my comment.

That list did not include The Chemical Wedding, so my comment was that the list was not valid. Here's why:

Turn it up loud!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

An Ode to the Berkley Medallion Conans all their tattered glory
Karl Edward Wagner was and remains the most qualified individual to weigh in on the issue of Conan stories penned by someone other than Robert E. Howard, given that he wrote arguably the best pastiche of them all (“The Road of Kings”). So it behooves us to listen to what he had to say in the foreward to the Berkley Medallion Edition of Conan: The Hour of the Dragon (August 1977):

“I have written Howard pastiches myself, so I can speak both as a reader and an author: Every author leaves his personal mark on whatever he writes; the only man who could write a Robert E. Howard story was Robert E. Howard. Read Howard pastiches as you will—but don’t let anyone kid you that you’re reading Robert E. Howard. It is far more than a matter of imitating adjective usage or analyzing comma-splices. It is a matter of spirit.”
While Howard fans these days are spoiled by the Del Reys, prior to 1977 you could not buy a collection of the Conan stories without editorial emendations or the presence of pastiches. Both the widely printed Lancer/Ace collections of the 1960s and 70s and the rarer Gnome Press editions from the 1950s were marred by editorial changes and additional non-Howard material. That all changed with the Berkley Medallion Editions, published by the arrangement of the late, great, Glenn Lord (1931-2011), and edited by legendary horror and swords and sorcery author Karl Edward Wagner (1945-1994). These consist of three books in an aborted series that was supposed to run longer and include all 21 of Howard’s original stories. They include The Hour of the Dragon, The People of the Black Circle, and Red Nails. To prepare the Berkley Medallion Edition manuscript Wagner made photocopies directly from the pages of Weird Tales, correcting only obvious typographical errors.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Some nice ink for a deserving writer

I came across this story at the New York Times and thought it worth sharing: Joe R. Lansdale is a Fresh Discovery, Decades in the Making.

It's so nice to see hardworking mid-listers who do their job and do it well eventually get their due. Lansdale in my opinion is one of the great storytellers of our generation. By that I mean he writes fun, captivating tales that are almost impossible to put down. Though often violent and visceral, his writing also contains that rare quality that only a few authors are able to pull off: Humor.

Lansdale has written many books since his debut novel in 1980 and also seems to crop up regularly in anthologies. I've recently read two of his short fiction pieces in the George R.R. Martin/Gardner Dozois anthology Warriors and the John Skipp-edited Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead. Both were among the standouts in these respective collections (if I see an anthology with Lansdale's name on it, I will buy it. I can't think of a handful of current writers for which I would say the same). He also wrote the foreward to Mark Finn's biography of Robert E. Howard, Blood and Thunder.

If you ever want to explore his writing, I personally recommend starting with Mucho Mojo or The Bottoms, which are probably my favorite two works of his.

I did not know until I read the New York Times piece that Lansdale was recently honored with a Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Horror Writers Association. It's certainly well-deserved. Lansdale speculates in the article about why he is enjoying a sudden run of recent popularity: “People who grew up on my books are now able to get the point across to others that they’re worth reading,” he said.

Here's one other person who feels the same way. I personally think HBO should scoop up the rights to his Hap and Leonard series. They would make for some great viewing.