Category Archives: books

Reviewlet: Doctor Who, The Writer’s Tale

Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale starts with journalist Benjamin Cook e-mailing Russell T. Davies, head writer and honcho of Doctor Who, suggesting an article looking at the process of writing one of the forthcoming episodes of Series 4. Davies thinks it’s a good idea and replies, starting a year long correspondence during a tumultuous time for the programme.

The book consists of these e-mails, lightly sanitised for language and spoilers (past series 4), and illustrated with copious photographs and Davies’ rather nifty drawings. This can make for a slightly uneven flow sometimes, but if you’re used to internet forums and message boards it shouldn’t be too jarring.

Obviously the main interest will be for Doctor Who fans. You get to see the Christmas special, The Voyage of the Damned and the rest of Series 4 take shape, including the evolving draft scripts of Davies’ episodes (some don’t make it into the book to keep it possible to physically lift, but they’re available on the aforelinked website), and over the course of the book Stephen Moffet is confirmed as taking over from Davies for Series 5. As The Writer’s Tale, it’s also got plenty of interesting stuff for writers, some practical, on dialogue, writing action etc., but mostly on the state of mind of someone trying to juggle the enormous workload involved in producing Doctor Who, writing six episodes, re-writing others, working on The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood together with some shreds of a personal life. Davies manages to simultaneously display seemingly crippling self-doubt about the value of what he’s doing together with the unshakable self-confidence required to write anything like Doctor Who, the early chapter on the effect internet criticism can have on writers being particularly illuminating.

Slipping into the role of emotionally stunted stereotypical Doctor Who obsessive, there may have been moments when I might’ve muttered something like “yeah, yeah, you’re depressed, get over it and write more about the plans for showing Davros in his younger days”, but generally if you’re at all interested in writing and Doctor Who, you probably guessed from the title you might like this book. And bought it a while ago.

Reviewlets: Making Money and A Computer Called LEO

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series has been going for 25 years, as a little sticker proclaims on the front of the latest paperback Making Money, which is an impressive run. Though I no longer rush to buy the books as soon as they’re released it’s rare that they disappoint, and Making Money is no exception. It’s not Pratchett’s best, but like a comfy old pair of slippers the setting is immediately familiar, there are no wild surprises as Moist von Lipwig, central character of Going Postal, is put in charge of the Bank of Ankh Morpork and the Mint, hijinks ensue, and everything concludes most satisfactorily. The appearance of the mint hinted for a moment at Isaac Newton’s role at the mint in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, but didn’t really develop in that direction.

Making Money continues the evolution of Discworld as concepts from our universe emerge, in this case paper money, and also includes an analogue of an analogue computer (as it were). Previously we’ve seen computers come to Discworld in the form of Hex, somewhat reminiscent of the other book I’ve just finished, A Computer Called LEO.

I’ve been fascinated by early computers, originally from military history and their role in cryptography, then more generally at university in the history of computing. Among pioneering machines LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) is often overlooked, possibly because it was the first business computer, working on payroll and stocking rather than “sexier” projects, but Georgina Ferry’s book redresses this, covering the history of Lyons, a somewhat unlikely hot-bed of business computing, the development of LEO, and, as with many post-war British industries, decline and inevitable government-driven mergers. Most interesting.

Reviewlets: Fateful Choices, Farthing, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

A quick round-up of some holiday reading. As encapsulated in the subtitle, Ian Kershaw’s Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941 examines ten key decisions of World War II, such as Britain deciding to fight on in 1940, Hitler’s decision to attack the Soviet Union and Japan’s decision to attack the USA. It’s well written and thoroughly researched with copious footnotes, no [citations needed] here. Though world-changing, Kershaw deliberately doesn’t look at the “what if?” scenarios of different decisions being made; in almost every case the conclusion drawn is that even though some of the actions may have seemed to be based on little more than a whim, especially those involving Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin, they all had such a weight of events behind them that they were all but inevitable.

Many of Kershaw’s decisions have been used as points of divergence for alternative histories, such as Jo Walton’s Farthing that I downloaded as part of Tor.com’s freebie bonanza (since finished, I’m afraid). In Farthing, Britain made an “honourable peace” with Germany after the Battle of Britain, and the book is set in the resultant 1949. It starts off as a cosy country house murder-mystery, a la Christie et. al., with twin narrators: Lucy, daughter of members of the “Farthing set” (loosely based on our timeline’s Cliveden set) and the Scotland Yard Inspector sent to investigate the murder. As the Tor website didn’t give much information past book titles and authors for the free downloads, I knew nothing else and expected it to continue in this vein, but it turns much darker as it progresses, and I don’t think it spoils things too much to say that it doesn’t conclude with everybody gathered in the library for the murderer to be unmasked. The setting is very interesting, though I didn’t really engage with the characters, but I’d be interested to see what happens in the next two instalments.

Finishing off the alternative history theme, Michael Chabon’s Nebula-, Locus- and Hugo-winning The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Not too much else to add to all the awards, it took a little while to get going but once I got to grips with the language and setting I really enjoyed the hardboiled story.

Reviewlet: Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson.

Following Zoso’s post regarding the freebies available for a short time on Tor, I took the opportunity to grab a couple of the books on offer and have myself a bit of a read. Unfortunately the books listed didn’t have any descriptions listed alongside, and being the lazy bugger that I am I couldn’t be bothered to research each one on Amazon. So I went for the <voice style=”reverb: on; volume: booming; pitch: low”>random click of destiny</style> and hoped that I’d picked something I could get in to.

The first book was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, a decent enough space romp with a slightly different take on the ‘downloadable personality’ theme as seen in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon and elsewhere. Scalzi has created a universe that is both interesting and believable, with compelling races and individuals that leave you wanting to find out more about them, and although the main story is a little uninspiring, the secondary storyline – based around the main character himself, his history and the moral dilemmas he faces as life as he knows it is turned on its head – allows the reader to really engage with the book as a whole and to be immersed in the ideas and themes that Scalzi presents. Obvious comparisons can be drawn to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and, as mentioned earlier, Morgan’s Altered Carbon, so if you enjoyed either of those two books then you probably won’t be disappointed with Old Man’s War.

The second book was Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire, a really rather excellent fantasy story that pleasantly surprised me with its well presented world, its likeable-without-being-mawkish characters and the real star of the show: Allomancy.

Allomancy is the system of magic that Sanderson has created, and instead of having it as some innate unseen power that requires hugely bearded men to sit hunched over dusty old tomes for years on end to achieve, Allomancy instead manifests itself as more of a mutation that is powered by various metals that the Allomancer must ingest and then ‘burn’ to activate the power. There are a number of known metals that can be used in this way, each giving the Allomancer a different power when they burn the metal, but they gain this power only for as long as the metal lasts since it is consumed as the Allomancer uses the power, hence the term ‘burning’ to represent the use of the power. Unlike magic in many other books though, the art of Allomancy is still not entirely understood, and this leaves the door open for things to be twisted around and for plenty of surprises to be unleashed on the main characters and the reader.

The world of the Final Empire is one of a class of nobles who rule over an underclass of slaves known as Skaa, all of whom are presided over by the Lord Ruler, the hero of a past age, who is now immortal – a shard of God – and controls the land with an iron fist. The lands themselves are a depressing affair, with what little vegetation that manages to grow under the ash-filled sky being nothing but dull brown; nobody knows what colourful plants look like, although it is hinted that they did exist in the time before the ascension of the Lord Ruler.

The story is nothing out of the ordinary, with the standard framework of the underclass rising up to overthrow their oppressors through the efforts of a select band of unlikely heroes, but it does throw some nice twists in along the way. However, there is an undercurrent of another story which is not fully expounded upon, and The Final Empire clearly leaves the door wide open for the second and third books to sate the reader’s desire to find out more about the trials of the Lord Ruler a thousand years ago: what was this Deepness that he faced? And if he succeeded in defeating it as we are led to believe, why did the land change so much for the worse afterwards? There are some answers in the first book, just enough to whet the appetite and keep the reader wanting more as the main story of the first book comes to its, perhaps inevitable, conclusion.

I could best describe Mistborn: The Final Empire as having a strong bouquet of Eddings, with a light fragrant sensation of Jordan on the palette and subtle undertones of Lynch and Gemmell.

It’s a credit to Tor, and hopefully in its own small way encouraging to authors and publishers out there, that I’ve already ordered all three books in the series, and I’m certainly keen to find out what the story is behind this fascinating world that Sanderson has created. I bought the first book because, although having read it, I’d like to give the author the sale, and there’s nothing like having a paper copy of a book, the creased and wrinkled spine and loose well-fingered pages a simple testament to one’s enjoyment of the story within. So putting a free copy of the first book in the series on to the web has resulted in at least one new fan, and a few sales, and more importantly I’d like to think that I’m not out of the ordinary in doing so. Not only that, but it has also inspired this little reviewlet which I hope, in turn, might turn some of you on to the idea of trying this excellent little trilogy yourselves.

Well done Tor for seeing the advantage in this sort of marketing strategy, and I hope it works out well for the authors involved.

Free books!

Found via Charlie Stross’ blog, Tor have launched a shiny new website, and to celebrate are giving away stuff! Books, pictures and… well, just books and pictures. But that’s enough, surely, especially when it’s a whole pile o’ books in a variety of handy formats (mostly HTML, PDF and Mobipocket). I haven’t tried any of those authors yet, so what better opportunity? The N810 is now loaded up with some extra holiday reading, which is always handy for keeping the weight of a suitcase down. The freebie bonanza is only on until July 27th, so make haste! Even if you miss that free loot it’s looking like a fine site with new stories and all sorts of other interesting posts.

Reviewlet: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

The general shorthand for Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell seems to be “Harry Potter for adults”, but as the only common element is magic you might as well call it “the Paul Daniels Show in book format”. The immediate comparison that springs to mind for me is Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World), though that still doesn’t stretch much past that they’re both dense, weighty historically-set tomes. The Baroque Cycle is set in the 17th and early 18th century, has strong picaresque elements, and focuses on science and technology, whereas Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a Regency novel from a 19th century where magic exists.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is extensively footnoted with references to magical texts and happenings, which was initially slightly irritating and disruptive, but it builds such a cohesive, believable world that the magical becomes matter-of-fact, a natural part of things. Though the pace is measured, and at times there isn’t an awful lot happening, it doesn’t happen with such style that it carried me through. Not quite “I couldn’t put it down” (apart from anything else your arms need a rest now and again), but most enjoyable. Recommended, especially if you like Regency novels featuring magic.

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.

Let’s see, other than spending copious amounts of time covered in poop and vomit (have I mentioned the baby at all?), what have I been up to that might be marginally more interesting to those of you who come to read this blog on occasion.

Well time really has been at a premium so MMOs were the first to suffer the +1 Pendulous Axe of Time Management. It’s hard to find an MMO that one can dip into and play with very little commitment; it’s not just the relatively small slices of time that I am afforded to play at the moment, where travelling time in some MMOs would consume ninety percent of my play experience, but also the fact that it’s very hard to just abandon an MMO at the drop of a demanding baby’s +2 Hat of Vocalised Attention Seeking. In a single player game it’s very easy to hit a pause button, press escape to pull-up the options menu (which I suppose is the modern game equivalent of the pause key), or to just abandon the game very quickly wherever your character currently stands, knowing that when you return they will be standing where you left them, perhaps picking their nose or tapping their foot impatiently, but otherwise unscathed. Not so in an MMO: if you leave your character for even a fraction of a second, turn your head to look at something on the television, say, or look briefly out of the window at all the young healthy people soaking up their daily dose of vitamin D, perhaps bend down to rub some life into the numb slabs of jelly that pass for one’s legs, or so much as blink for longer than the requisite human system requirement of four hundred milliseconds, and a thousand angry mobs will have rained down upon your character and have reduced them to zero health points before you can say “By Chronos’ hairy arse! I glanced away for no more than the duration of the blanking period of my monitor! It’s not even visible to the human eye for crying out loud!”.

Having said all that, I have been dipping into City of Villains on occasion, for a quick half hour blast here and there, generally teaming-up with Zoso and or Elf; I’ve created a new character on which I can experiment with the power-set proliferation that occurred in the I12 ‘Midnight Hour’ update, and being that my love for the Earth Control power-set is unhealthy, and in fact illegal in twelve American states, I decided to create an Earth/Thorns dominator, and thus the Iron Cactus was born. Part man. Part machine. Part succulent spiny plant.

I may have also rolled an Electric/Willpower Brute, a Dual Blade/Regen Scrapper and a Willpower/Super Strength tank, although I haven’t played any of those characters at all yet.

But I’m not an altoholic![1]

I’ve also dipped into Guild Wars on occasion, essentially because, like a saucepan of dark chocolate and cream melted over a stove, it’s very, uh, dip-inable. I have a dervish, Wur Lin (WUR LIN! Whirling! As in whirling derv… ok, I was slightly inebriated and it sounded clever at the time) a monk, Mun Ki, (MUN KI. Monkey! As in monk eee… er, eh?) and an assassin, Tri Badism (TRI BADISM. Tribadism! As in… Ah. Well. Look it up some time, ey? Possibly not from work. And not if you’re under 18). Anyhoo, I think that’s plenty enough evidence of my, to be expected, curious naming conventions for my many characters.

But I’m not an altoholic![2]

Guild Wars is terribly easy to just hop into and play a mission or two, with the option of being able to drop it in an instant should a delightful ickle pink bundle of rabid screaming poo projection require one’s immediate attention. Admittedly most of my characters are in the early teens of the level progression cap of twenty, and this essentially means that they’re hardly anywhere at all in terms of game progress, but as with my never having reached the level cap in City of Heroes/Villains, for me it’s a game about the play, rather than the progress.

What makes City of Villains and Guild Wars so readily accessible to what I dub the Radical Casual player, the “It takes fanatical dedication to be this non-committal to a game” gamer? I think it’s a combination of things:

  • The short time it takes to travel anywhere. Both games have travel systems that mean you can get where you need to go, and be slaughtering your way through bags of XP in no time at all.
  • The short time it takes to make some progress. In both games, quests are readily available, relatively quick to complete, and generally not terribly complex. Yes, both games have deeper, longer, more complex missions at the higher levels, but they maintain this quick-access, easy goal, mission structure throughout a large portion of the levelling curve.
  • The time-minimal death penalty. Both games make it very quick and very easy to get yourself back into the fight, especially when you don’t have a rezzing character in the party. Both have penalties that could perhaps be considered more harsh than that in, say, WoW, because in WoW if you make the run to your corpse you suffer nothing but a little damage to your equipment which is easily repaired, but it is the length of that corpse run that hurts the Radical Casual player because it’s time wasted, and time is the defining limiting factor in their enjoyment of a game.

So that’s it for MMO, or MMO-like, games at the moment. As Zoso mentioned, many bloggers, of which we are no exception, seem to be experiencing the Anticipatocene era of the MMO timeline, sub-heading: “What We Do Whilst Waiting For WAR”.

My other gaming action in recent times has been Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, a Final Fantasy-alike, with the various elements of a JPRG but with the rude, crude and not-for-the-prude humour that any fan of the online web comic would come to expect. With the speed of encounters, and the fact that they are not sprung on the player, but initiated by them at their choosing by walking into an area containing enemies, it’s again an ideal play style for those of us who have to regularly acknowledge a priority interrupt, we who experience random encounters of the tot kind. The game was entertaining enough to keep me playing until the end – the humour quite successfully treads that fine line of juvenile puerility without being obnoxious – but I found the combat mechanics a little frustrating, perhaps dull is the better description. I seemed to spend most combat encounters waiting for the most powerful combos to charge, and just blocking or healing damage the rest of the time, which essentially consists of pressing the spacebar a lot, or clicking a few menu options. I’m not sure if this is just indicative of the JRPG style of combat – it’s been a while since I last played Final Fantasy VII or Chrono Trigger – but seeing as the combat constitutes the bulk of the game-play, I think there could have been a greater emphasis on tactical decisions, perhaps the Tactics style of play might have been more engaging. Nevertheless, the story was fun, the writing and art direction excellent, and the game-play was certainly not tortuous, indeed the idea of having mini-games to play through to get the maximum damage from your high-power combos was a nice touch. I’ll certainly be purchasing the next instalment when it arrives. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is available on Steam and also through PA’s Greenhouse.

In non-gaming related activities I’ve been trying to read when I can, which seems to be predominantly in those periods where one hand is occupied in holding a bottle to Mini-melmoth’s chasm-like, gorging mouth hole. I fair blasted my way through The Lies of Locke Lamora, an easy to read fantasy heist with likeable characters told through fluid, playful prose. Charles Stross’ Halting State got me through many a late night feeding session. It is, however – like Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother – one of these near-future novels that rubs one’s nose in the techno-jargon of today, tweaked slightly in attempt to appear 1984-like in its predictive nature. Which, frankly, just annoys the hell-fired pants out of me, because it’s just a jarring interruption to show how clever and techno-savvy the author is, rather than a commentary on anything in particular. Constantly having your protagonists use ‘weird’ and ‘wonderful’ futuristic Google applications, by having them (in some sort of Star Trek parody) hax0r in an improbable fashion an application to produce an inverted BitTorrent flow through Google’s forward deflector shield, in order to undermine the authorities in that hip, cool and subversive manner that only asocial computer nerds can manage, is just tedious, frankly. If you want to see a near-enough-to-be-scary prediction of the future that was written in recent times (1984 is still the unassailable granddaddy, and the story that every author of this type of book should strive to achieve), then you read Gibson’s Neuromancer. No Google, no 5000 jiggerbyte iPods or Xbox 2020 editions, but it still predicts a future that we can overlay on our current reality, like a virtual map, and plot the route, as clear as the neon-bathed streets of a Chiba district at night, that humanity is taking.

Having said all that, Halting State isn’t a bad book, other than for that minor personal nitpick, which probably nobody else shares. Oh, and it mentions Scotland far too often to be subtle, often enough to be blatantly jarring after a while. Yes, we get it, you’re Scottish, and a big fan of Scotland and you believe in it as a nation, and you probably hate the English, and all that, so it’s not the UK, because that would include the English and they don’t deserve any advertising unless it’s in a bad light, such as a Hollywood villain. So it’s a story about how the Scottish police were called into investigate a Scottish crime in the heart of Scotland’s Scottish hi-tech infrastructure, or Scotlandstructure, as they call it in the Scottish suburbs of Scotland’s Scotlandscape. There’s a subtle subliminal message in there, but I’m just not quite getting it.

In other news, Mrs Melmoth and I are taking Mini-melmoth to Scotland on vacation this year. No idea why, it just seemed like a good idea.

[1]May be a lie. Regulations and guarantees apply. This statement does not affect your statutory rights.

[2]Yeah, ok, it’s a lie.

Reviewlet: Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

I finished Last Argument of Kings a few weeks back, and I’m still not quite sure what I think of it.

To sort of sneak up on it unawares, I’ll talk around it for a while, with a few Western references, so apologies if you’re not into cowboy films. Minor (sort of, not terrible I hope) spoilers may follow…

So you have “classic” westerns, say the Lone Ranger: a sound, morally upright, heroic, white hat wearing hero, doing battle against injustice, never shooting to kill. Then you have films like Leone’s spaghetti westerns, of which my favourite is probably For A Few Dollars More. The morality is more complex, everything is much grittier, much more violent, but, broadly, you’re still rooting for your heroes against villains (though it’s harder to tell them apart).

The first two books of Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged, are like For A Few Dollars More compared to the Lone Ranger of more traditional fantasy. They’re gritty, violent and morally complex; they use a lot of common elements, but twist them into something new, so although you’ve got wizards, and kingdoms at war, and a quest, the key characters are a fop, a crippled torturer and a couple of psychos instead of a lantern-jawed farmhand, a jovial beer-swilling warrior and a sneaky thief with heart of gold (only stole from the rich and all that, bonus points if it’s a feisty teenage orphan/runaway). There’s a barbarian, but rather than a Schwarzenegger-as-Conan type, Logen is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven, older and weary, and Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter, living with the notoriety his actions have brought.

Last Argument of Kings carries on where the first two left off (weird, that, for the third book in a trilogy), with lashings more war, torture, stabbing and humour (mostly black). It serves up further twists on fantasy clichés, particularly a lovely take on the mysterious orphan finding his True Heritage, but if the first two books had kicked down the door of The Shed Of Fantasy Tropes, leaving it battered but standing, Last Argument of Kings lobs a grenade through the window. One thread you can normally cling to in stories is that main characters are heroes, The Good Guys, and they fight, and beat, The Bad Guys, whether it’s in a simple, Lone Ranger, white hat-wearing way, or a more complex blood-soaked scenario where one side are only good on a relative scale as they’re killing the really, really bad guys, and a lot of people get caught up in the middle. The first two books of The First Law, that’s pretty much the case. None of the main characters are saints by any freakish definition, but when the other side are cannibalistic devil-worshippers, you know who you’re rooting for (hint: it’s not the ones that snack on the odd leg here and there).

By the end of Last Argument of Kings, though, there is no winning, no vanquishing of great evil. There is no Greater Good. There isn’t even “Well At Least They’re Not As Bad As…” There are surprisingly few deaths in the key characters; if the Good Guys don’t win outright, another sure fire way of wrapping everything up is to kill everyone off in a massive shoot-out (c.f. The Wild Bunch), but Abercrombie doesn’t do that either (not least because it’s harder to do a shoot-out with bows, and stab-outs don’t seem to have caught on so much). It’s quite an unsatisfying finish in some ways; although some strands are tied up, many are (quite deliberately) left dangling. It’s challenging, thought provoking, not something you put down and wander away from whistling, and that’s why I’m still not sure what I think about it. Which is a good thing. I think. Probably.

Reviewlet: Iron Council by China Miéville

Well, the intention was to write a little reviewlet of Miéville’s Iron Council, but to be honest, in browsing around to see if anyone else thought, like myself, that the book was the expression of an incredibly imagined world of wonder wrapped in a story that dragged like the hind foot of a zombie on fright night, I stumbled into the Debating Iron Council blogstravgansa over at Crooked Timber.

Warning, spoilers abound! I’m putting the warning here, after the link, to punish all those of you who have shot off to read somebody else’s post before finishing with mine. The Internet really doesn’t teach the best of social graces when it comes to the art of conversation, it teaches us more about how to… Ooo, look, goldfish everyone! Goldfish!.

What really interested me was the link about two thirds of the way down the post which pointed to China’s responses to the points raised by several of the bloggers. It’s an interesting read, and gave me an insight into the man behind the book which coloured my opinion differently after having read his point of view, and more importantly showed that he felt that there were some valid criticisms, some of which he had received in the past, which he had tried to correct in Iron Council, obviously with varying success depending on each critics point of view.

But that’s not the really great part, the fun comes further down. In the mire that is the comments. Anyone who has blogged, read a blog, or once knew a man whose auntie’s dog was featured on a blog, will understand what happens in the comments. Generally, you get the nice people, writing to share their thoughts and perhaps heap a little praise on you for being able to do no more, if we’re honest, than string a few sentences together in a vaguely entertaining fashion. Then you get the Commentards; these are the people that have to pick a hole in something that you’ve said – not really justification in itself: debate is, after all, the art of war refined into a slightly less ‘head cleft in twain by sword’ fashion – but crucially, should you dare to respond and attempt a defence of your position they will essentially resort to calling you a Nazi and correct everything you’ve said as though you know nothing about the subject under discussion and that you’re simply trying to oppress them, even if the subject at hand happens to be the best selling book that you wrote.

Fun side-entertainment, head on over to China’s response post, and see if you can spot the point where the poor author’s soul is sundered into a thousand tiny little pieces. Hint: it’s his last post to the comment thread.

Those of you who stayed to finish this post before heading on over there, well done, award yourselves a biscuit and a small caffeinated beverage of your choice. Those of you just coming back from the other thread where you shot off like a puppy after a stick, those of us here who stuck around are now ignoring you like the bad puppy that just peed on grandma’s favourite Victorian winter shawl. While grandma was wearing it. That’s some mighty fine projectile peeing you’ve got going on there.

The wonder of it all though is this: more and more authors are making their presence felt online, and I’m not talking about the stand-offish token page, where you get the impression that the author is wearing industrial marigolds and a face mask, and holding the page out to you at arms length pinched between their finger and thumb so as to make sure that the amount of time that they will be in contact with you, via the page, is as little as possible. No, these authors, the Gaimans and Abercrombies (and I’m sure many others, these are just two of the prominent ones that I happen to read) of the online world, respond to readers either directly in comments or as the focus of their own posts. This rather brave behaviour gives an ‘indirect direct’ access to them that provides insight into the mind behind the stories and the person behind the characters, such that all of their works are enhanced tremendously from knowing them that little bit, as much as you can know anyone online. As much as you know me. For all you know I could be a fifty year old transvestite boxing champion with a walrus moustache, called Marjorie.

I did feel a tinge of sadness though. It was the idea of having such access to luminaries of the past, contact which in the past would have been reserved for only a close circle of friends, that triggered the melancholy; specifically I was thinking of the inimitable Bard himself, seeing as I find myself endlessly marvelling at his wordsmithing. I wondered what he would say to us if he had a blog and could respond to our questions and comments, briefly I marvelled at the possibility of contact with that mind and what insight we could have garnered, until I pulled-up short and realised the inevitable, the one and only comment that he would post: he would tell us all to fuck off, because he was fed-up with having to answer to the griping pedantic diatribes of a bunch of ingrates.

But it would be the most beautiful blog comment ever composed by man.

Reviewlet: Achtung Schweinehund!, By Harry Pearson

You can’t judge by looking at its cover, Bo Diddly assures us in a bid to convince that, despite looking like a farmer, he is, in fact, a lover. The cover of Achtung Schweinehund! features a British and German armoured car straight from the pages of a Commando comic, the back has that distinctive dagger, and blurb about a childhood spent re-enacting the Second World War. For the first part, that’s just what it is, reminiscences close enough to my own to provoke frequent laughter and a warm wave of nostalgia, but his childhood was around ten years earlier so also interesting in a sort of “compare and contrast” way. Arsenals of toy weaponry ranging from cowboy six-shooters to sparking laser blasters, Battle Picture Weekly and Commando comics, Action Men, legions of plastic 1:32 scale Airfix soldiers…

The second part, though, suggests that Diddly chap might’ve been on to something. As the author leaves childhood, the focus moves to more serious wargaming. Where he stuck with historical warfare, my divisions of plastic soldiers were joined by Star Wars figures and Orcs, I started on fighting fantasy books and roleplaying, then computers got involved. This presents something of irreconcilable difference, I sense. Pearson says:

The whole fantasy thing turns my stomach. To my mind, three men are responsible more than any others for the creation of this abhorrent perversion of the hobby: J. R. R. Tolkien, creator of Middle Earth, Robert E. Howard, creator of Hyboria (which was a kind of Middle Earth with breasts), and E. Gary Gygax, the mild-mannered Canadian inventor of Dungeons and Dragons. ‘All three of them should be put up against a wall and shot,’ I said to TK one day when I was feeling particularly aggrieved at World of Warcraft’s continued encroachment into our territory. He raised an eyebrow. ‘I think you’re getting a bit carried away there, mate’ he said. ‘Are you sure?’ I said. ‘Oh yes.’ TK said. ‘I mean, two of them are already dead. It would be a waste of bullets.’

Ironically, Gygax died while I was reading Achtung! Schweinehund, though I don’t think Pearson was in the area with a rifle. I’ve long said that some of the most heated flamewars on message boards are between people who fundamentally agree with each other, but get into vicious point-by-point rebuttals over exactly how they agree, so after bristling with incandescent rage over such heresy and writing a stiff letter to The Times Points of View White Dwarf magazine involving the line “why oh why oh why oh why oh why etc. (ps: I totally expected the pig, don’t you go trying to put one over on me, no piggy-wiggy)”, I figured hey, that’s the rich and diverse world of specialist interests (or, if you prefer, geekdom) for you. Fantasy vs Historical is another blood-feud over barely-perceptible-to-outsider differences to file alongside Metal vs Plastic, Collectors vs Wargamers, Marvel vs DC, PvE vs PvP, Hard Science vs Space Opera, Normal People vs LARPers (I kid, I kid, don’t hit me with foam-covered axes).

I don’t think it was just being put off by that quote, but I wasn’t so keen on the second part of the book. It meanders around somewhat, and where Pearson doesn’t care for fantasy, I don’t have a great interest in pre-mechanised 20mm miniatures. The bits and pieces about the history of wargaming, Napoleonic dioramas and such are fairly dry, and I’d mostly picked up elsewhere. The descriptions of fellow enthusiasts and characters, the embarrassment of such a terminally uncool hobby and hiding it from “normal” people, ring true enough, but though there’s a few funny moments on the whole I found it tended more towards the depressing than the heart-warmingly eccentric, particularly the gamer, alone in a squalid house stuffed to the point of structural failure with metal figures. It drifts off rather after the promising start; overall, not bad, but not brilliant.