Review: Tarnsman of Gor

Tarnsman of Gor

The Gor series is perhaps the most infamous science fiction one ever. Yet you’d never know it from the beginning entry, Tarnsman of Gor. What that is is a somewhat sleazier and really, really blatant John Carter of Mars knockoff. As transported Earthman Tarl Cabot goes to a world of barbarians, slavery, and giant birds (the titular “tarns”), a clunky narrative ensues.

The series devolved fairly quickly into what is best known as slave sleaze, where it becomes filled with blocky rants about how men holding women as slaves is the best, most natural form of society, and how many Earthwomen suddenly find themselves loving being slaves. This isn’t as present in the first installment, but Cabot is still not exactly the most ideal protagonist.

More interesting than the blocky prose is how the series got its reputation: I mean, there’s certainly no shortage of outright and far more explicit sleaze fiction, whether in the 1960s-70s or today. So why do sci-fi/fantasy fans turn their anger more on Gor and not those? I’d argue that it’s because it makes the fig leaf of “sword and planet adventure” too blatant, putting it in a different standard. Even Dray Prescot got into mocking Gor, naming a barbaric continent of slavers “Gah”.

But yeah, even in the early, less problematic books, I can unhesitatingly say: Skip Gor. Author John Norman rivals William W. Johnstone for “worst mainstream published author”, and that is no small feat.

A Thousand Words: Mighty No. 9

Mighty No. 9

Judged on its own without any other context, Mighty No. 9 would resemble a mediocre Mega Man-style game. There have been dozens of those, including more than a few in the official series itself. To study it there would not be the most interesting. About the only things I can say for the game itself are that it copied the cheapest difficulty elements (why?) and in everything from plot to aesthetics simply tried to be “as close to classic Mega Man as possible without lawsuits”.

But what is interesting is the ridiculous amount of hype that came around its crowdfunding. Occuring in the “irrational exuberance” phase of Kickstarter and spearheaded by ex-Mega Man head Keiji Inafune, this was one of those “the gaming king came down to make a dream” experiences. This prompted emotion that successful MM-esques like Azure Striker Gunvolt (made conventionally by a firm that had experience on the official games) and 20XX (crowdfunded yet made by an unknown) couldn’t bring.

The result was a ton of stretch goals “met”, feature creep, the project getting out of hand, the mood turning from hopeful to laughable, and then the game itself sinking like a stone when it was finally released. Whether it could have been better or if the expectations were just too great is an open question. What is not is that this was one of the biggest crowdfunding embarrassments.

VTOLs and Airships

Technically speaking, lighter-than-air airships that have the ability to rise vertically just by dropping ballast are VTOLs. But a lot has struck me about how these heavier-than-air contraptions should be, but mostly aren’t, a staple of alternate history the way airships are. Oh, in science fiction they appear in force (see the Orcas from Command and Conquer and Vertibirds from Fallout), but in regular AH, not so much.

VTOL craft run a gamut from simple (conventional helicopters) to ultra-complex. After normal rotorcraft you have so-called “compound helicopters” like the cancelled Cheyenne that have additional horizontal engines to make them go faster. Then you have tilt-rotors/wings like the V-22. After those there are airplanes with dedicated lift engines. Then you have Harrier-style thrust vectored craft. Perhaps the most complex proposal was a giant Beriev seaplane with literally dozens of lift engines.

VTOLs have been technically possible as long as aircraft themselves, but they’ve run into issues. Trading complexity and the problems that come with it, as well as other performance issues, for small advantages (mostly speed for helicopters and takeoff distance) is one problem. Another is stability, with computerized controls being almost necessary. Of course, another design with tradeoffs that has been underused despite being technically possible is…. lighter-than-air airships!

Yet while the presence of airships has become a cliche in alternate history circles, VTOLs have not been. Alternate history is full of Victorian zeppelins, not Vietnamese tilt-wings and jet-copters. If I had to give one reason why, I’d say it’s because of brand appearances. Zeppelins look like something from the past, therefore it’ll be “historic but with zeppelins”, aka alternate history, while VTOLs look futuristic, and therefore writers are more likely to just make a story with them pure science fiction (or sold as such).

Or it could just be genre inertia. But it’s a fascinating subject about fascinating vehicles all the same.

Review: Journey’s End

Journey’s End

Amazingly, surprisingly, the Kirov series has gotten a formal conclusion with Journey’s End. I’d predicted that there was no way for the series to end gracefully after 64 clunky volumes. And my prediction turned out to be accurate. A lot of this is de facto flashbacks to each ill-developed member of the crew. The final battle is just a wargamed clash like the hundreds before it. The hanging threats of Volkov and the aliens are dealt with hurriedly and contrivedly.

The conclusion is “a generally happy ending is stuffed in at the last second due to yet more time travel technobabble.” Schettler was clearly desperate to finish Kirov so he could write a fantasy novel series (which are no stranger to giant, bloated, sagas), and it shows. Still, that a 64 book epic with millions of words was completed at all is no small accomplishment.

A Thousand Words: Doom

Doom

For the 666th post on Fuldapocalypse, I figure I’d do a “suitable” piece. It was either than or something on the SS-18 missile, whose NATO designation cannot be a coincidence (18=6+6+6=designation name “Satan”.) But I digress.

The id Software masterpiece that popularized the First Person Shooter genre, Doom is the deep, complex story of a sole surviving spacesuit burly man against a giant horde of demons. Ok I kid. But it is still one of the most successful and influential games of all time, ported to a degree that it’s become a meme/security/programming challenge to see if a certain device can be made to run Doom.

What makes Doom interesting and effective even decades after its initial release is that it’s a movement game. The “Doomguy” can run around at massively high speeds, and most of the enemy projectiles can be dodged. Thus it’s about player movement skill. Later cover-shooters are more about player timing skill. And the awkward turn-of-the-millenium games that took place after hitscan and slow characters but before cover mechanics were mastered-

-Well, the only “skill” involved is knowing the layout and how many powerups are there. It’s a kind of deterministic rut that stands as one of those things that doesn’t bring nostalgia. But the rapid movement of Doom is one that definitely does. This is a classic for a reason.

Review: The Day After Tomorrow

The Day After Tomorrow

Allan Folsom’s debut novel, The Day After Tomorrow (no relation to the 2000s movie) is-something. It’s definitely one of the best worst novels I’ve read recently. The prose is as blocky as it is purple (including, yes, the love scenes), and most importantly, much of the book is just people traveling. It’s supposed to be an unwinding conspiracy thriller…

…But it has an anti-Goldilocks effect. It’s too unrealistic and bombastic to be a cloak-and-dagger story, too dull and clumsily written to be an action novel, too narrow in scope to be a pop epic, and too shallow to be a character novel. And then there’s the big twist.

See, this book is basically a novelization of They Saved Hitler’s Brain, down to his actual head playing a role in the plot (although this one is not yet alive). It boils down to using convoluted superscience to clone/revive Hitler, for….. uh….. Anyway, the biggest part of the plot is foiled by someone other than the doctor and detective who serve as the protagonists, leaving a reasonable assumption of “what’s the point”?

Well, the point is that I learned of this book from a bad review. And while I don’t recommend it to anyone “normal”, I had a blast reading it.

A Thousand Words: Sonic Adventure

Sonic Adventure

I was a child when Sonic Adventure first came out on the Dreamcast. I was also one of the rare few who got to see it new and firsthand. At the time it looked impressive. Now with hindsight, it’s basically the Yak-38 of video games.

The Forger was basically a tech demo of a V/STOL fighter that got shoehorned into being an operational aircraft out of desperation. It was horrendously underpowered and unsafe. Likewise, this is a massively erratic way to show off all the things the Dreamcast could do more than an actual game. Sonic himself is a barely controllable pinball. Everyone else is there to represent something “new” and “amazing”. Tails can fly. Knuckles is there to have the same kind of collectathon gameplay pioneered in Mario 64. Amy-uh, does, basic puzzle stealth? Gamma the robot does third-person shooting by way of locking on, and Big the Cat infamously has that classic element of a speed game: Fishing. Slow paced fishing at that.

The cinematography in the cutscenes is utterly horrendous with the slightest point of comparison to anything else. And this introduced the storyline elements that would explode to horrendous proportions in Shadow and 06 and remain with the series even to this day. Which is to say, a combination of mystical mumbo-jumbo, Dr. Robotnik/Eggman messing with something he shouldn’t, and tons of new characters with each installment.

What I consider interesting is that Super Mario 64, made by Nintendo from a position of strength, did not do anything like this. It kept the same basic excuse plot as the past installments, and didn’t feel like it had to push anyone new very hard. Sonic Adventure, made by Sega from a position of weakness, had to stretch, and it failed in that regard.

The tragedy of this for the series was that instead of trying to improve the fundamental controls, Sonic Team focused on one gimmick after another. Mechs, teams, guns, telekinesis, anything but razor-sharp platforming. Adventure didn’t cause the famous 3D pit all by itself, but it started the process of digging.

A Thousand Words: Stealth

Stealth

2005’s box office flop Stealth has become a cult classic for all the wrong reasons. This military thriller feels like what would would happen if you took someone who once read a Dale Brown novel and watched a few old war movies as his sole references, gave him a $100,000,000 budget, and turned him loose. It has “stealth” aircraft behaving in the least stealthy way possible, a haywire robot plane, and a bunch of jumbled plotlines that end with the characters just walking casually across the Korean DMZ.

I’ve long felt that the movie would be better if it was either smarter or dumber. If it was smarter, it could be prescient look at drone warfare. If it was dumber, it would be a much more focused Iron Eagle-style funfest. Instead it’s just a bizarre mess with the occasional attempt at a serious point mixed with advanced jets fighting like it’s 1916 and product placement music.

Still, I can’t bring myself to truly dislike this movie. The sheer excess of it in all directions means that it’s at least interestingly bad. And it does have explosions in it.

A Thousand Words: Requiem For The Phantom

Phantom: Requiem For The Phantom

The 2009 anime Phantom: Requiem For The Phantom is an adaptation of the “Phantom of Inferno” visual novel, the first work by infamous creator Gen Urobuchi. It tells the story of a young Japanese man and enigmatic girl turned underworld assassins with German number codenames, as they fall into a twisted world. It’s perhaps the best example of a “mean 51%” work I can think of, because of how zig-zaggy it is. A “median 51%” story would be bland but effective consistently, and this is anything but.

The production values and especially soundtrack are excellent overall. But the animation quality is surprisingly inconsistent. And the plot and characters are much more so. It wants to be this dark drama exploring the human psyche but it also wants to have tacticute girls and ex-East German supervillains bouncing around. This doesn’t always mix. A bigger problem is that so much of the story line is devoted to a fundamentally uninteresting conflict between various equally unsympathetic amoral criminals. It just became hard to care about, and the main characters spent more time moping than taking advantage of the agency that they theoretically had.

This is the equivalent of Dave Kingman or Chris Davis, a show that just swings and swings and either hits the ball hard or strikes out. While it often doesn’t succeed, I can give it credit for sincerely trying, and it was never outright bad enough that I didn’t want to watch.

Review: Postwar AANW

The Anglo American Nazi War: Part 2

The first installment of The Anglo American Nazi War, published as Festung Europa, has been reviewed on this blog before. Because the postwar part is A: different, B: worse, and C: deliberately not included in the published version, I figured it deserved a separate review.

The wartime portion can fit, slightly awkwardly, into a certain form of pseudo-historical fiction. For fans of conventional World War IIIs, it can be compared somewhat to Hackett and The War That Never Was. It’s a description of a conflict that didn’t happen written in the style of recounting one that did. There is thus a tiny connection to fiction in general, albeit with the thread leading to another very small niche. It also fits into “AH as a genre.”

The postwar installment lacks even that connection. It’s a pure example of internet alternate history, and one of the big problems I’ve had when trying to review is that internet AH is an extremely insulated subculture that lacks almost any tie to normal literary storytelling. How can you critique the characters if there are none? I’ve had to strain to explain it, with the best I can give being “The outline of a de facto fanfic that uses ‘history’ as its setting”. If that sounds unusual and bizarre, it is.

Internet AH has a reputation for its installments being extremely short, something that actually sets it apart from other serialized web-fics that have a deserved reputation for often leaving War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged in their dust where length is concerned. The more substantive wartime portion takes up over 86% of the words written in the story. What’s left is a series of short infodumps.

Here’s what happens. In an utterly ruined Eurasia, everything from the Channel-bordering regions of France returning to British semi-rule as crown dependencies to the US annexing the Russian Far East as “Western Alaska”, with it later becoming a state, occurs. There’s both a “Russia” and a “Soviet Union.” The remnants of Germany are divided into many Morgenthau Plan-style restricted microstates. All this is told in blocks of exposition that somehow feel even flatter than the wartime ones. Which is a shame because there’s both comparison to another alternate history (in this specific case) and a huge amount of lost potential.

The world that develops is one where the US builds lots of superweapons the author clearly likes, adopts a full-on might makes right policy, has the path cleared for cakewalks despite its historical postwar advantages and lack of historical rivals, and uses them frequently against totally ineffectual opponents who exist purely to serve as live-fire targets. This is very much like The Big One, except it lacks the utter audacity and, in something you’d never have hear me say earlier, literary skill of that series.

Instead of using the power of Mary Sue project management to get the superweapons into service without breaking the bank, postwar AANW just has the US continue to run what amounts to a total war economy, falling victim to the “nine women can have a baby in a month” fallacy of funding always equaling results. Instead of having immortal manipulators with catlike eyes provide unrealistic policy continuity, postwar AANW just has a lazy unshakeable consensus emerge. Even after the US destroys several German cities with space weapons after their uprising had been conventionally suppressed, the result is not a “you kicked them when they were down” backlash similar to the real one (however fair or not) over the atomic bombings of Japan, but rather the even more hawkish party gaining support.

What should be an audacious, massive divergence that could easily serve as the foundation for a distinctive work instead is summarized in only around two dozen pages worth of actual text. This is a shame because the premise of a superweapon-obsessed US that never truly left the wartime era (and its ugliness and excesses) behind could make for a great “AH as a setting” story. It could be a highbrow book about generational change, with the upheaval making the historical 1960s look tame. It could be a thriller as the nation with a bazooka suddenly faces problems requiring daggers.

Instead it’s just the outline of an even more biased late Tom Clancy novel mixed with map trinkets. Instead of being made into a potentially tasty meal, the ingredients were just placed in a bowl and left there, next to other bowls full of uncooked flour, eggs, and spices.