Bottled Scorpions: For Want of a Nail… by Robert Sobel

For_Want_of_a_Nail_Cover
“What if the American War of Independence had failed?” is one of the great stock prompts for alternate history writers, but For Want of a Nail… If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga (1973) is undoubtedly one of the most unique takes on the question ever written. A large part of that is due to the format; rather than taking the form of a traditional novel, author Robert Sobel presents his text as a narrative history, surveying the course of events in North America from the 1760s to the present of the early 1970s. Filled with footnotes to nonexistent works, a bibliography of sources that never were, and with Sobel writing the work wholly in-character as an inhabitant of its world, For Want of a Nail… genuinely feels like a window onto another world. You could easily imagine this book being assigned to Australian undergraduates taking second-year survey courses in North American history, or being put on the syllabus in the corporate feeder colleges in Taiwan.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Review | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Eltingville Club and the Horror of Fandom

The Eltingville Club - 2016 Collection Cover

What charming boys. (From left to right: Bill Dickey, Pete DiNunzio, Jerry Stokes, and Josh Levy.)

At the end of The Eltingville Club, Dark Horse’s 2016 compilation of the titular club’s twenty-odd years of misadventure and mayhem, creator Evan Dorkin pulls back the curtain to discuss the impetus for the club’s creation. Back in 1994, Dorkin’s publisher and mentor Dan Vado, founder of the independent comics imprint Slave Labor Graphics, was writing for one of DC Comics’ Justice League lines when the decision was made to kill off the character of Ice. As it happened Ice was something of a fan favorite, and her death prompted a number of incensed fans to send Vado angry letters and death threats. (As it turned out, Mark Waid was the one who actually proposed killing Ice off, a decision he regretted and later apologized for on Gail Simone’s “Women in Refrigerators” blog.) Disgusted by the attack on his friend and the needless hyperbole of the fan response, Dorkin began formulating a response of his own, a comic to satirize and mock the worst elements of comic fandom. He soon found himself working on an anthology that needed a story, and so The Eltingville Club was born.

Befitting its nature as a cult favorite, The Eltingville Club has spread far beyond its original niche. Most serious modern satires of geek culture and nerd misanthropy, from KC Green’s Anime Club comics to Tim Chamberlain’s Andrew Brendan: King of the Internet, can trace their roots back to Eltingville. However, in spite of its brevity The Eltingville Club is a much stronger work than those it inspired. While it makes plenty of hay from the dysfunctional personalities of its characters, it also digs deeper to satirize the social dynamics within geek culture itself that give rise to their behaviors and sustain them. While the comic doesn’t speculate too far in this direction, it nonetheless opens up a space to consider how these toxic dynamics play out in other spheres of fandom.

Continue reading

Posted in Comic Discussion | Tagged | Leave a comment

More Of A Minor Nuisance, Really: H. G. Wells’ The Holy Terror

The Holy Terror - Cover

The cover from the first American edition. I have a rather drab picture of a baby on the lackluster House of Stratus reprint I own, but better that than a paperback with Oswald-Bloody-Mosely on the front.

The Holy Terror has become a forgotten novel. It’s not hard to understand why; it’s a novel about a wannabe fascist dictator who takes over the world that had the grave misfortune to be published in 1939, when the public appetite for such things had dropped to precisely nil on September 1st. Furthermore, it’s an H. G. Wells novel from late in his career, long after the speculative whimsy that made his earliest works so endearing and enduring had given way to the Wells the Preacher, endlessly banging on about the Necessity of the World State, Property Held in Common, An End to Religion, And So On And So Forth. As a result, even though you could make a case for it being Wells’ last foray into the fantastic (depending on how you classify 1940’s All Aboard for Ararat), there generally hasn’t been much discussion of it, either at the time of its publication or in the following decades.

Certainly I had never heard of the book until coming across a blog post made by sf author/critic Adam Roberts a few years discussing the book as part of a literary biography of Wells he was putting together. Despite my wariness over late-period Wells, I was intrigued. The Grand Old Man of the Scientific Romance takes on fascism! What sort of hay could be spun from such a premise?

Sadly, the answer turns out to be very little. The Holy Terror is a bad book, both as an exploration of the rise of fascism and as a story in its own right. For those in the realm of dedicated Wellsian scholars, The Holy Terror is probably more interesting as an attempt by Wells to reconcile through prose the long-held ideals of his utopian World State with the actual world of the late 1930s. While the novel presents this attempt as a success, the compromises and misunderstandings required to achieve this success undermine the work, poking at the more unsavory aspects of Wells’ own utopian vision.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Review | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Burgundian Lullaby – Some Thoughts on The New Order: Last Days of Europe

The New Order Last Days of Europe - Europe 1962 Map by et37

Map of Europe and North Africa as of January 1, 1962 in The New Order: Last Days of Europe. Created by“et37” on Reddit. Note in particular the state of the Mediterranean and the Germanization of city names in the former Soviet Union.

(I wish to preface this post by saying that the following should not be considered a proper review of The New Order: Last Days of Europe. I have never played the mod or vanilla Hearts of Iron IV, and I don’t really have any intention to do either in the near future. Most of my information about this mod has been gathered from Reddit and TVTropes, God help me, and the mod itself is still undergoing development, so everything I write is subject to change and misinterpretation on my part. I am writing this solely for my own edification.)

Lately I’ve developed a fixation with The New Order: Last Days of Europe, a massive modification to Paradox Interactive’s WW2-focused grand strategy title Hearts of Iron IV. The mod, henceforth referred to as TNO, pushes the game into the early 1960s and lets the player explore a world where the Third Reich triumphed during the Second World War. Ordinarily such a scenario would not interest me; while I have written in the past about media that explores this premise, I tend to find them very played-out, with most modern explorations rarely doing anything that hasn’t done dozens of times over the past 75 years. Much to its credit, TNO takes a different approach with its material, indeed going so far as to criticize the assumptions of earlier works depicting a Nazi victory. While the mod’s own utility as a critique is questionable, TNO nonetheless succeeds through its emotional impact, for turning a game in a genre typically seen as very dry and abstract into a genuine work of horror.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncollected Thoughts | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Blurring the Design: Black Mesa Versus Half-Life

Half-Life - The Anti-Mass Spectrometer

The Anti-Mass Spectrometer in “Anomalous Materials”. The most famous piece of lab equipment in video game history.

I adore Half-Life. Ever since I stepped into the shoes of Gordon Freeman for the first time during my undergraduate days in the mid-2000s, I’ve long considered Valve Software’s inaugural 1998 title to fully deserve its reputation as a classic of gaming. I have walked through the Black Mesa Research Facility so many times that I know every lab, utility corridor, and meat pile like the back of my hand. I know every chapter name, and what to do in any given moment. I’ve also plumbed the depths of Black Mesa outside of the original game in the official expansions of Opposing Force (Gearbox, 1999) and Blue Shift (also Gearbox, 2001), as well as countless mods of various descriptions.

However, all this love and familiarity has left me in something of a bind regarding Black Mesa, the long-delayed fan remake of the original Half-Life­ that finally found a commercial release in March of 2020. It’s a big, beautiful game that just oozes love for its source material…but I don’t actually like playing it all that much.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncollected Thoughts | Tagged | Leave a comment

Playing Fallout: New Vegas, Part III: The DLC Stories, With a Particular Focus on Lonesome Road

Ulysses at the Divide. Art by amyoy on deviantArt.

This is the final part of my long ramble about Fallout: New Vegas, in which I take a moment to look briefly at the DLC stories.

There are four DLC stories for Fallout: New Vegas, all of which were built and released over the course of 2011. They take the Courier from the familiar locations and stories of the Mojave and drop them in new conflicts all around the western regions of the former United States. I must confess that I was not exactly fond of many of the DLCs during my first playthrough; the conflict in the Mojave was what drew me into New Vegas, and I spent a lot of my time in the DLCs anxiously wanting to get back to it. While I had varying levels of engagement with the various story DLCs, it was the final one, Lonesome Road, that has stuck with me the most. Not only does that DLC return to the central conflict of the main game, it is also a clear expression of Obsidian wrestling with how Fallout has changed, as well as how their own work on New Vegas itself has changed it.

Continue reading
Posted in Uncollected Thoughts | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Playing Fallout: New Vegas, Part II: The Major Players and the Changing Face of the Wasteland

Fan art of the major players of the Mojave, care of leona-florianova on Tumblr (Sealinne on deviantArt). From left to right, top to bottom: Yes Man, Robert House, President Aaron Kimball of the NCR, Courier 6 (“Blondie”), Benny, and Caesar.

This is the second part of my long-winded ramble about Fallout: New Vegas. Here I will be blathering on at ridiculous length about the major factions in the game, how they appear and operate, and how the wasteland as a whole has evolved and changed across the franchise.

Continue reading
Posted in Uncollected Thoughts | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Playing Fallout: New Vegas, Part I: A Long-Winded Introduction

This post really got away from me. I ended up writing it on and off over the course of a week, and it turned into a gargantuan ramble far bigger than anything I’ve ever put up on this blog. To that end I’m going to be dividing it into three chunks and release each part over the next few days. Today’s installment, naturally, is a giant introduction to the Fallout franchise as a whole and to the premise of New Vegas.

***

It’s something of a minor miracle that Fallout: New Vegas even exists. The original Fallout (1997) and its sequel (1998) were landmark titles in the world of computer role-playing games, but even they weren’t enough to save their publisher, Interplay Entertainment, from its own internal problems, and the company finally fell apart in the mid-2000s. The Fallout license wound its way into the hands of Bethesda, who quickly set to work on their own reinterpretation of the franchise. The end result was Fallout 3 in late 2008, a great critical and commercial success that sparked the resurrection of the Fallout franchise in the public consciousness. Knowing a good thing when they saw it, Bethesda began looking for ways to give the world more Fallout, and in mid-2009 they struck up a deal with Obsidian Entertainment, an CRPG developer who had never really worked on a AAA title before, to deliver a spinoff title for Fallout 3 on a tight 18-month timeline. Such a project would be daunting for even a large seasoned developer, but Obsidian had two aces in the hole. Not only was Obsidian staffed by a bunch of devs who had actually made Fallout and Fallout 2 back in the ’90s, they had access to all the old design documents and concepts for “Van Buren”, the original sequel to Fallout 2 that had been shelved in 2003 as Interplay collapsed. Taking those rough Van Buren concepts as a base from which to build, Obsidian managed to get the game, originally named Fallout: Sin City before shifting to the more familiar New Vegas, together and out the door for October 19, 2010.

While critical reaction was generally favorable, a lot of fans who had jumped onto the franchise with Fallout 3 found it difficult to acclimatize themselves to Obsidian’s take on the franchise, while fans of the game had their experience marred by the swarms of bugs that even now a decade’s worth of fan patches have been unable to wholly quash. However, as the years have passed, Fallout 3 seems to have aged the worse of the two, while New Vegas has come to be heralded as a classic on par with the original games, if not exceeding them.

I have been fascinated by New Vegas for years, but it was only this past November that I decided to take the plunge.  That first playthrough ended up taking the better part a month and became one of the greatest experiences I have ever had in gaming. Despite this, I feel like New Vegas will ultimately be the only Fallout game I will play. While in terms of gameplay New Vegas is a wildly successful merger of the first-person CRPG model Bethesda adopted for their Fallout games with the story-and-choice-focused approach of the older games, the premise and story speak to a fundamental change in the setting. New Vegas is a game that is moving the world of Fallout in a new direction, a direction that even New Vegas‘ own developers seem uncertain in following.

Continue reading
Posted in Uncollected Thoughts | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Be Seeing You, Friendo: Paratopic

Paratopic - Steam Splash Screen

Paratopic is the first game produced by Arbitrary Metric, a three-person collab of Tangiers dev Jessica Harvey, freelance developer and critic GB “Doc” Buford, and Lazzie “BeauChaotica” Brown handling the audio and composing the soundtrack. I first played the game upon its initial release on itch.io in late April of 2018, and I played it again when an expanded version was released on Steam in September of the same year.

Paratopic is about…

The story of Paratopic is a…

Paratopic opens…

Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? You can describe what happens in Paratopic, and even theorize about connections, timelines, and events behind the scenes. But divining some sort of ultimate understanding from Paratopic is not possible. Indeed, the game has been explicitly designed to make such divination impossible.

Continue reading

Posted in Spooktober, Uncollected Thoughts | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Old England: Pavane, by Keith Roberts

Pavane - Cover
It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to get around to Pavane. Back when I was getting into alternate history in my callow high school days , I assimilated this idea that Pavane was one of the three great ur-texts of alternate history, next to Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Ward Moore’s Confederacy-victorious time-travel novel Bring the Jubilee (1953). In retrospect, imagining these texts as any sort of unified canon was kinda silly. Bring the Jubilee has been mostly forgotten today, and even though I read it back in high school I certainly remember little of it. The Man in the High Castle has survived thanks to its connection with PKD, but my attitude on it has cooled over the years. I have little interest in most of Dick’s pet nostrums, and I feel his depiction of a Nazi victory has been superseded by other, more interesting writers.

Pavane is a much different story. I was finally able to get around to reading it a few years ago after ferreting an ancient paperback copy out of one of the countless boxes of books my mother had stashed in the basement. But while the book was old and yellow, the power of Keith Roberts’ words remained undiminished. Pavane is wholly deserving of its reputation as one of the greatest postwar works of British sci-fi, combining beautiful prose with a profound meditation on the nature of modernity, technology, and England itself.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Review | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment