Friday, July 31, 2020

Of sword-and-sorcery, politics, and the Flashing Swords that wasn't

I'm not naive, and I'm aware that politics leeches into all walks of life, art included. Consciously or subconsciously, ones religious beliefs, political affiliation, or sexual leanings make their way in.

But please for the love of God keep your overt political rants out of my fantasy. It's lazy and I don't like it.

I tried very hard to stay away from politics in Flame and Crimson and restrict my analysis to S&S as an art form, along with the artists, broad themes and conventions, and publishing facts and figures. For many reasons, one of which was made evident today.

Editor Robert Price could have and should have used this opportunity as editor of Flashing Swords 6 to talk about Lin Carter's legacy, the importance of the previous 5 Flashing Swords anthologies, and introduce some hard working new authors to a new readership. Instead he chose to pen an ugly, divisive, political screed, one that will win no one over to his side and is guaranteed to alienate more than than 90% of the book's intended audience. That includes anyone who identifies as a liberal, or a progressive, would prefer to live and let live, is female, or who has a daughter. Or frankly, has a brain.

Sword-and-sorcery appeals to strength, wish-fulfillment, acknowledges our species' fascination with violence, and celebrates self-determination. The subgenre has a history of muscular dudes lording over mounds of corpses, often with a scantily clad female clinging to their muscular thigh. I'm on record as saying I'm OK with all of this--its gorgeous art, I'm a sucker for all things retro, and moreover it's a product of its time. I also think that its OK to like stories about kicking ass, and getting the girl, and carving out one's path from street level thief to King of Aquilonia.

But I think these old S&S tropes can be successfully re-imagined for a modern audience. The anthology Heroic Visions (1983, so not exactly yesterday) for example was based around the thematic concept of strength, whether male or female, mental or physical, and proved that S&S could result in powerful new stories that did not require a muscular barbarian in a loincloth to prop them up.

For the record I don't like censorship. I don't like the implication that, because I enjoy Conan or Kane, I must be a misogynist. When I read old stories that contain casual generational racism or sexism, I apply historical context and move on. I wish more people would do the same.

But Price's introduction is poor, confusing, laughable, completely out of place, diminishes and tarnishes sword-and-sorcery, and has no business kicking off and celebrating what should be a nice relaunch of an old beloved series. We've got to do better. The genre that also gave us C.L. Moore, and Leigh Brackett, and powerful heroines like Valeria and Jirel of Joiry, deserves better.

Feel free to hit me up here or over email with your thoughts or comments. But don't expect more politics on the blog.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Feeling SAD on a Monday? Listen to this

Dangers galore in these old books...
By SAD of course I mean Swords Against Darkness, that awesome 1977 Zebra anthology of sword-and-sorcery edited by Andrew J. Offutt. I got to spend a nice hour+ talking about it with the hosts of the Appendix N Book Club podcast.

The episode is now live. Listen here or on your favorite podcast app.

Here is a sampling of what we covered:

Reading fantasy fiction as a kid, writing about swords and sorcery, second generation sword and sorcery authors, the understated prose of Poul Anderson, O. Henry’s sword and sorcery, multiclass characters, the collected Ryre stories, elves and dwarves in swords and sorcery, sword and planet, and much more!

Friday, July 24, 2020

Ideas are a dime a dozen. It's all about execution.

The title of the post should speak for itself, but a little context.

Heard on the intranets recently... "Gary Gygax ripped off Dave Arneson! Dave is D&D's true creator!"

My response: Horse shit.

Ideas are like a@#$holes. We've all got one, and most stink. I can sit here in the calm quiet of my living room and fire off a dozen. "Weight loss app." "Online mentoring program for pediatricians." "Telehealth scheduling interface." "Dying Earth role-playing game."

They mean (almost) nothing. What matters is the execution.

You've got an amazing idea for the next 7 volume epic fantasy series? Great. It means nothing ... unless you write it. And it's good.

That awesome weight loss app idea? Great. Now program it. Market it. Sell it. Until then, your idea is so much vapor.

Back to Gygax-Anderson. The idea of taking tabletop military wargames and altering the scale to make a tin soldier representing a unit of 1,000 men a single hero you control and imbue with personality, is a pretty cool one. Whoever conceived that idea, whether Gygax or Anderson (or some other unnamed wargamer), remains up for debate, though Arneson was definitely part of the conversation. His fictional game world of Blackmoor inspired Gygax, and together the two men went on to co-develop the original D&D game rules.

But Gygax took the idea and created TSR, turning an idea into an industry. Without Gygax, there would be no D&D.

That's the power of execution vs. ideas.

Home work (outs)

Heavy metal.
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus I've switched to working out from home and dumped the commercial gym. And I'm loving it.

In addition to weights and a bar I bought a Rogue R-3 power rack. It's been worth every penny. It actually has adjustable safety pins  (imagine that), an item which my prior semi-shitty box gym did not possess. Near criminal for a business that ostensibly exists to get people strong.

The result of this equipment and the knowledge that if I fail a heavy lift I'll be fine, plus having no one waiting on me or interrupting my routine with inane babble, has been a small PR. Today using a below parallel/hips below the crease of the knee squat, I hit 455 x 2, followed by 405 x 7. Not bad for a 47 year old dad and desk jockey.

I'm into sword-and-sorcery and heavy metal, so lifting heavy goes hand-in-hand. I was raised on Arnold Schwartzenegger films and Frank Frazetta barbarian physiques and wanted to look like that. For the record I don't, but I believe in exercise and the physical fueling the mental.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Some recent arrivals

Thanks Amazon!
I'm looking forward to digging into these, in particular My Father The Pornographer, Chris Offutt's memoir of his father Andrew. Though perhaps best known for his work editing the Swords Against Darkness anthologies and as an author of some S&S, horror, and science fiction titles, Andrew Offutt apparently made most of his income writing porn novels under pseudonyms. This purchase was prompted by my recent re-read of Swords Against Darkness for the Appendix N Book Club Podcast.

Happy to support DMR with this purchase of Heroes of Atlantis and Lemuria. I've been slowly adding to my collection of CAS and The End of the Story is a welcome volume.

Finally, The Conan Companion is at first glance and one cursory thumb-through a beautiful book and a detailed publishing history of Conan.

More to come on these later.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Halls of Valhalla, Judas Priest

This one is worth a listen (he says, in understated fashion):

Fierce is the gale
From the north sea
We drink and rejoice from the chalice
Holding the course
Through long nights and days
The ice and the hail bear no malice
Tow the line
Keep it fine
Every man seeks this end

Valhalla - you are calling

I had forgotten how good this one was, until I hit upon it during a Youtube search while getting under the bench press today. I was able to hit another rep on my top set at 320 (x8 reps), right as the intro kicks into high gear at around the 40 second mark. See if it won't do the same for you.

Redeemer of Souls (2014) seems relatively forgotten after the more smashing success of Firepower (2018). While I do admit the latter is a better all-around album, Redeemer has a few monster tracks, including "Dragonaut," "Redeemer of Souls," "Sword of Damocles," "Battle Cry" and of course, "Valhalla." It was Priest's first album without the great K.K. Downing, who decided to retire and get into the business of opening a country club, but Richie Faulkner (The Falcon!) reinvigorated the band, and Halford proved he still had a lot left on the fastball. See the 4:28 mark.

I saw Priest play in support of this album in 2014 at the Tsongas Arena in Lowell MA, and got to meet three of the band members back stage. That story is too long and too good to be told here so shall wait for another day.

I have a confirmed fetish for anything Viking and this song definitely gets me ... aroused. I think Poul Anderson would have approved of it. Hell I think Ragnar Lodbrok would have drank mead from the skulls of his enemies with this one as the soundtrack.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Some notes on Swords Against Darkness and the Appendix N Book Club Podcast

Not a volume of Robert E. Howard
stories, despite the large
"Robert E. Howard"

This past Sunday I had the honor of joining hosts Jeff Goad and Ngo Vinh-Hoi for an episode of the Appendix N Book Club podcast. This is one of my very favorite podcasts, and a must-listen if you’re interested in pulp fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, or exploring the literary roots and inspirations of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Subscribe today.

We reviewed a classic, Swords Against Darkness, the first in a series of five S&S anthologies edited by Andrew Offutt. It had been a few years since I last read SAD and upon re-read I found it even better than I remembered.

What follows are some rough notes I made for the show, not a polished essay. I hope the guys from Appendix N don’t mind the preview. This is just a taste of what we covered.

The episode is supposed to drop on July 27. My computer audio gave out at least 2x during the program which was a source of considerable frustration (and likely some annoying post-production). Jeff and Ngo, thanks again for the opportunity.

General commentary
This is quintessential sword-and-sorcery. Quite the roll-call of S&S heroes—Kardios of Atlantis, Simon of Gitta, Ryre, Vettius, etc.

Editor Andrew Offutt is perhaps best known these days as the subject of My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir. But he wrote many credible S&S stories for the likes of Thieves’ World, three Conan novels, Cormac Mac Art stories including a couple with Keith Taylor (When Death Birds Fly and Tower of Death, which I have on my bookshelf), and of course served as the editor of Swords Against Darkness.

Swords Against Darkness II has a helpful introductory essay by Offutt, “Call it what you Will,” which was among the many essays I referenced in Flame and Crimson. A relevant quote from that essay, “As to ‘sword & sorcery’—sometimes the tale contains no sword—or no sorcery! Or, more rarely, neither. (Sword and supernatural might come closer, if we’re to discuss, haggle, or bicker”)

This collection is perhaps more accurately heroic fantasy, due to historical nature of some of the stories. But I’m not going to bicker or get pedantic. Much.

Cover is noteworthy for the blurb, “Heroic Fantasy in the tradition of Robert E. Howard”—very common to namedrop Howard on S&S covers, which is indicative of general popularity of REH /Lancers/Conan in general. Zebra for example had a line of REH reprints—Tigers of the Sea, Worms of the Earth, A Gent from Bear Creek, etc. Zebra later adopted “swords and sorcery” on its spine. And it’s got Frazetta cover art of course, though I’m not as fond of this piece as most of his other work.