Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Space pirates, smelly aliens, space battles, and the Chief Justice of the Commonwealth of Kentucky: The Ninth Circle, by R.M. Meluch.

Raucous, breezy, tongue-in-cheek, yet also thoughtful and filled with insight into both big ideas and human relationships, R.M. Meluch's "Merrimack" series continues in The Ninth Circle.

First and foremost, this is a book about people. Rebecca Meluch has a deft touch when it comes to creating and bringing to life characters. Earlier books like Chicago Red, Wind Child, and Wind Dancers were very much character studies, sensitively drawn and interesting, and wove those characters into complex and well-thought-out future settings. Meluch's "Merrimack" books do the same, but somehow the tone is light, often comical, yet there is a solid backbone of human truth in them. She takes the tropes of grand adventure military space opera, and replaces the usual two-dimensional characters with complex, thinking human beings.

One of the major conceits of these books is that the Roman Empire never fell. Oh, this isn't an alternate history...quite. The Romans went underground, biding their time as the centuries passed. They educated themselves, amassed fortunes, placed themselves in key positions, and took on important careers like those of doctors and scientists, waiting for the right time to assert, once again, Rome's primacy over Earth. Mankind's spread to the stars gave this shadow society its chance to finally step out of the dark and declare itself openly, with Rome claiming a planet they named Palatine, and asserting their claim on Earth as the domain of the Roman Empire. Opposing Rome is the good ol' U.S of A., which duels both with Rome, and the United Nations, renamed in this book the League of Earth Nations, or the LEN. It's a premise that makes me laugh with its sheer audacity, and sets the stage for some incredible fun.

The Space Battleship U.S.S. Merrimack, pride of the American spacefleet, is now commanded by Calli Carmel. Commodore John Farragut is now an admiral, and has happily moved back home to Earth and busies himself with, along with his duties, raising a family. I dig that Meluch didn't contrive some way for Farragut to remain at the helm, along the lines of Star Trek's Kirk. Farragut's presence still looms large, and how could it not? Farragut is one of the most colorful, larger-than-life characters I've ever seen in science fiction. I can imagine him and Kirk becoming fast friends and swapping starship stories while throwing back some beers. Yet he's still real.

At the end of Strength and Honor, it felt like Meluch had drawn the tale of the Merrimack to a conclusion. Like a Roman comedy, everyone ended up married. The Hive, one of the most terrifying and interesting alien menaces I've ever seen in science fiction, was defeated. Rome's threat to Earth had been averted. There was an elegiacal feeling to it all, though, despite the happiness of the characters. This was due more to me, as a reader, mourning the end of a story that I'd eagerly read, than to the book itself. Meluch gave the "Tour of the Merrimack" a satisfying conclusion, yet that satisfaction was tempered with a wistful desire on my part for more stories in this wonderful setting.

That's why I was tickled to learn that the Merrimack would return. The Ninth Circle is a great new beginning, delving into the increasingly rich future setting Meluch has created. Glenn Hamilton, officer on the Merrimack, saddled by Farragut with the nickname "the Hamster," is on leave and with her husband as he joins a scientific expedition to a distant planet. In another part of the galaxy, a band of Roman recruits are exiled for cowardice. The Chief Justice of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, a larger-than-life figure even in a universe where larger-than-life is the rule, visits his eldest son, John Farragut, without explanation. Pirates begin to plague the spaceways. Numa Pompeii, Emperor of Rome, goes on an unprecedented tour of the galactic hinterlands. It's all woven together skillfully, creating a larger narrative that brings all these elements together. Meluch doesn't overdo the mystery, and characters figure out much of it when they should, but the human side of it all is what stands out in this book. Great science fiction, in my opinion, is always about huge ideas and how humans interact with those ideas. The Ninth Circle covers that territory well.

Meluch tackles head-on many of the tropes and inconsistencies inherent in space opera. She has addressed time travel and quantum physics, in some cases in spectacularly story-changing ways. She does not handwave away the implications of extraterrestrial life, and squarely grabs the concept and pulls it front and center, making the reader think about what constitutes extraterrestrial life, and how it could impact every aspect of society. She also makes the presence of DNA in supposedly alien life a plot point, when most writers and filmmakers would simply gloss over it or not even understand why it's important in the first place. To me, it's nothing short of amazing how Meluch never neglects any aspect of her narrative - neither scientific concepts nor human interactions suffer a lapse of attention in this book.

Overall, this is a great book. Pure fun, and that includes how it deals with big scientific concepts. The door has been left open for more, and I sure hope to see more soon.

Cursed Tombs and Hobbit Villagers: Bree and the Barrow-Downs

Fog on the Barrow-downs was, for the longest time, one of my favorite chapters of The Lord of the Rings. The title itself is evocative, setting a mood that is ominous, like a classic black and white horror movie. The story has, by that time, seen the Hobbits descend into a strange, dark world just beyond the borders of their beloved Shire. The Old Forest was dangerous yet whimsical, and Tom Bombadil's house a haven in it. Yet just beyond it is another shadowy land, one they are warned not to linger in. With good reason; the Barrow-downs are truly haunted, with dark spirits that desecrate the resting places of a once-great folk.

Later, after adventures amongst the downs, the Hobbits finally make it to Bree. Bree is an interesting spot on Tolkien's map, a small town that is apparently a crossroads on once-great thoroughfares. Now, few beyond Bree-land visit, except for adventurous Shire Hobbits (which is a vanishingly rare phenomenon), some closed-mouthed Dwarves traveling on mysterious business, and a few furtive Men on ominous errands. Even the occasional Wizard makes a stop there as he moves about Middle-earth. It's a rustically cosmopolitan place.

This Middle-earth Roleplaying adventure actually captures a lot of this. The cover uses an image from the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings film. I've been critical of that film, but there is some striking imagery in it. This cover shows one of those images, of Bree huddled under Bree Hill under a darkling sky. It sets the mood for a place that is a bit of light in a vast gloom.

The book gives a brief history of the area, which stretches back a surprisingly long way. Bree-land was never a pivotal place, so while much history passed it by, it never took center stage. That's a bit surprising, given that it's situated on the border between Arthedain and Cardolan, and is a crossroads, where the North-South Road - known to most in the area of Bree-land as the Greenway - and the Great East Road meet. By the time of The Hobbit, both roads were little-used outside where they ran through the Shire and Bree-land. The kingdoms that had built and used them were long gone.

There is a rundown of Bree itself, with some of the major buildings listed and detailed, as well as brief descriptions of the other villages in Bree-land: Archet, Combe, and Staddle. They're tiny, and are something like suburbs of Bree.
An overhead map of Bree and its environs.

Archet, Combe, and Staddle

There is a discussion of the local politics, economy, agriculture, and festivals. Overall, it's a bucolic place, not too unlike the Shire, though its people, including the Hobbits, are less naive than their neighbors. It's a clue to the importance of the Rangers to the safety of the Shire that Bree has built defenses and fields a town guard to protect itself. It's another indication of just how dangerous the outer world is, even within a short trip beyond the borders of the Shire.

A more northerly look at Bree-land and its neighbor, the Shire.
Southerly view of the region surrounding Bree-land.

Bree and Bree-land wouldn't seem terribly interesting as an adventure site, had readers of The Lord of the Rings not already followed along as Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin had already faced quite a bit of danger just in getting there. Tolkien unintentionally provided a really good introduction to the whole area as the basis for adventure gaming.

A lot of fantasy roleplaying games have a long tradition of using villages as the "home bases" for adventurers who strike out into the wild. These villages serve as rest stops, resupply areas, recruitment centers, and motivating factors for further adventures. All have at least one inn, where adventure hooks, gossip, and rumors float about, and mysterious strangers sit in corners waiting to be spoken to. They exist near wild places and crumbling ruins, where it is rumored that all manner of danger exists. Bree is the prototypical roleplaying game village.
A town guard can be found in just about any fantasy roleplaying game. Their main function is to bedevil the characters that belong to the players.

True to form, beyond Bree is a place rife with danger and adventure: the Barrow-downs. These ancient burial mounds are filled with treasure, but also with undead. In addition, the Old Forest of Tom Bombadil lies to the west and south. To the east is Weathertop and the lost land of Rhudaur, and, of course, Elves live there.

The book provides a number of characters for the players to interact with in Bree and Bree-land, and beyond. There is a band of Dunlendings holed up in an old fortress nearby, some bandits, scattered trolls and wolves, and, of course, down in the Barrow-downs are Barrow-wights.

Quite a few barrows are detailed. These resemble the kinds of "dungeons" made famous in adventures for Dungeons & Dragons, though these barrows are much less complex. In fact, even the most elaborate barrows are a handful of rooms, and most are a single space. There are illustrations and maps that give a good indication of what the barrows look like within and without. A good bit of treasure lies within the Barrow-downs, but it can be deadly to get to and to keep, as seen in The Lord of the Rings.

A description of the Barrow-downs from the book.

The barrow of Ostoher, the last king of Cardolan. Ostoher is on the cover of Lost Realm of Cardolan, discussed in an earlier entry in this blog.

This volume in the Middle-earth Roleplaying line by Iron Crown Enterprise is not likely to appeal too much to non-gamers. There is quite a bit of game-specific material that makes it really useful at the game table, but not as a good read. There are charts of statistics for characters and monsters, and a lot of specifically-detailed treasure - these all have effects in game terms that might look like gibberish to the casual reader. So I can't recommend it as a late-night or rainy-day read. The maps, though, are gorgeous, especially the regional maps by Peter Fenlon.

Bree and the Barrow-downs is a MERP book that actually is better than I thought it was before starting this series of blog posts. Closer examination shows it to be much more useful than I originally thought. I was put off by the time-setting, which is about 1300 years before the time of The Hobbit. The Prancing Pony is not here, though a similar inn, the King's Rest, is. Still, it's easy enough to just rename the inn and have Barliman Butterbur own it. The Barrow-downs are essentially timeless, and the surrounding lands don't change much. So, this makes for a good beginning area for playing a game set in Middle-earth. It's actually pretty fun.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hillmen of the Trollshaws, or, the sourcebook for the lost kingdom of Rhudaur.

Middle-earth is a world in decline. The Elves - well, the Noldor and Sindar; Tolkien himself said the Silvan Elves remained in Middle-earth and are still here today - are steadily moving back to the lands across the sea. That's not Florida they're heading to; it's almost literally Heaven.To the south, Gondor teeters on the brink of disaster. Much of the northwestern part of the continent of Eriador is wilderness, the great kingdoms of Men that once held sway there are long dead by the time of Bilbo and Frodo. Of those, the kingdom of Rhudaur didn't even have the dignity of fighting a long losing battle against evil. In fact, Rhudaur fell with a whimper, becoming a mere vassal of the Shadow that threatened all of Middle-earth, and became a rallying point for the evil of the Witch-king of Angmar in his wars against the Men and Elves still resisting Sauron's lingering evil. So it's unsurprising that the kingdom of Rhudaur was even more forgotten in a land where forgotten kingdoms are the rule.

It also seems fitting that a lost kingdom that had never really been much account in the first place would end up mostly forgotten and little regarded even in books that recount the history of an area. Such is the fate of Rhudaur, the least of the three kingdoms that resulted from the fragmenting of Arnor, the sister kingdom of Gondor. Rhudaur's sibling kingdoms of Arthedain and Cardolan struggled on for centuries against the rising evil, with Rhudaur becoming not just a thorn in their sides, but a dagger to their ribs. The line of kings of Rhudaur, established by the third son of the last king of Arnor, faded from memory, was replaced by Hillmen, then done away with altogether. By the time the Bagginses, Bilbo and Frodo, set out on their separate journeys, the name Rhudaur was replaced in the minds of most mortal inhabitants of Middle-earth with a descriptive name: the Trollshaws.

 Hillmen of the Trollshaws is a sourcebook and adventure for Middle-earth Roleplaying. It's fairly brief compared to many of the regional sourcebooks for MERP that I've discussed so far, weighing in at 39 pages. The books for specific sites like Weathertop or Halls of the Elven-king have fewer pages, but they don't try to cover a whole country. There are a couple of pages of game information, as is usual with MERP books. Several pages deal with the history of the area, which I touched on above, but which is even more convoluted and interesting than I was able to get into. There are notes on the ecology of the area, with charts of animals, creatures, and plants common in Rhudaur. There are a variety of peoples in Rhudaur, from the titular Hillmen, to the Dunedain who ostensibly ruled the area for a time, as well as Dunlendings and Northmen. Interestingly, there is even a reference to Petty-dwarves, a long-vanished race of exiled Dwarves. They may not be as vanished as Tolkien let on, as far as this alternate, game version of Middle-earth is concerned. Oddly, there is minimal mention of Elves, even though Rivendell is located in Rhudaur. Elrond's house is mentioned, and a paragraph discusses the relation of the Last Homely House to its surroundings, but that's about it. Perhaps the writers simply decided to focus this book, since it was inevitable that Rivendell would show up in a book of its own eventually. I think it was a good call. This book covers an already obscure subject, and a place like Rivendell would have overshadowed it.

Much of the action in Hillmen of the Trollshaws centers around Cameth Brin, a twisted hill that became the haven for various evil factions throughout the long years after Rhudaur fell under the influence of evil. Fortresses were built and dungeons were delved in the hill, held at different times by Petty-dwarves, evil Men, Trolls, and Orcs. An overview of the area in different times is given, any of them potentially usable interchangeably in any given age. The entire book is very much like traditional roleplaying game adventures and sourcebooks, with dungeons to explore, plenty of cannon fodder like orcs to oppose the players, a sprinkling of undead to scare the pants off anyone who gets too cocky, and a lot of country to explore to find trouble.

This isn't a bad little book. It might even be a nice evening's read for a Tolkien fan, as long as that fan keeps in mind that some of the history and background is extrapolation built up around some often scant information from Tolkien. The maps, as usual, are outstanding - see above, and below.

The rest of the art is decent, a bit better than Rangers of the North. Some of the characters look a bit too blow-dried for folk who live their lives in the midst of a Medieval-level wilderness.

The cover is atmospheric, I'll give it that. There is even a nifty picture of a giant snapping turtle, which is never a bad thing.
Looks ready for a SyFy Original movie of his own.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Everything old is new again: the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons reprints.

One of the more surprising things that's come down the pike this year, game-wise, was Wizards of the Coast's decision to reprint the original three Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) First Edition (1e) core rulebooks - the Dungeon Master's Guide, the Player's Handbook, and the Monster Manual. Long out of print, the game had gone through two and a half editions and was about to embark on yet another when these books were announced. The changes made between editions of the game were significant, such that they ended up being different games, at least to some observers. Regardless, each edition retained a significant following of its own, despite the increasing rarity of books and materials for them. Thus, it was a bolt from the blue when Wizards of the Coast (WotC) announced they'd be bringing three of the most iconic, and oldest, D&D books back into print.

These three books were not the first D&D books published. The game had gone through a few iterations already by the time the Monster Manual appeared in 1977. The significance here was that the Monster Manual was the first hardbound D&D book, and was one of the earliest hardbound RPG books, period. By the time the last of the three books, Dungeon Masters Guide, was published in 1979, a new standard of production for roleplaying games had been established.

By today's standards, those books, in their original incarnations, are not slickly-produced. A good bit of the art is amateurish. The layout is often simple, if not primitive.

Ghosts and Ghouls, staples of D&D

As the decades crawled by, these books crawled into my psyche. The art became iconic, often due to its primitive nature. It was simple, direct, and had an energy to it born of a passion for the game and its subject matter. The content was remarkable for not talking down to the reader.

Wizardly doings in the Players Handbook.

Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D (along with Dave Arneson), authored these books, and assumed the reader had a strong grasp of the language. I was constantly flipping through dictionaries as I read, way back when, as a 13-year-old, sometimes having to seek out and find even bigger, more comprehensive dictionaries with archaic words. Even then, I ended up learning the meaning of some words purely from context. Years later, when the internet allowed Gygax to field questions from many of his devotees, like myself, he cited a book called Poplollies and Bellibones as one of his sources for many of the obscure words he used. I immediately grabbed a copy when I saw it on a bargain shelf at a Barnes & Noble. I laughed when I read it, out of pure joy at the discovery of what was, essentially, a Rosetta Stone for Gygaxian writing. Even later, I discovered another book that Gygax apparently used for inspiration - The Book of Weird, a book that lives up to its title (and a book which I discussed in its own blog post). Both these books, and the books he listed as inspirational reading for D&D on the famous (among gamers) Appendix N in the Dungeon Masters Guide, give depth and dimension for those who wish to see from whence D&D sprang. The game is firmly rooted in literature, from the whimsy of Lord Dunsany to the swashbuckling of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Mars" books to the atmospheric dark fantasy and post-apocalyptic tales of Margaret St. Clair. Thus, it is no surprise that Gygax developed a style that was learned. His style was also both professorial and conversational. There is a warmth to the prose in these books, in particular the Dungeon Masters Guide, that has caused it to stick with those who've read it for many a long year. Gygax addressed the reader as a peer. That was a big deal to a kid like me.

A nice, serene, and entirely appropriate image from the Players Handbook title page.

Many books were published for D&D throughout the years, yet these three always loomed in the background, throwing their shadows across the years and the editions. The Dungeon Masters Guide became, for many, the standard text for how to run a roleplaying game. The Monster Manual became the model for pretty much any monster book for any roleplaying game that came after; most all of them are variations on its theme. The Players Handbook groomed prospective gamers for what they could expect. These books became a triumvirate of Platonic Solids for gaming books.

As is true of anything in the human experience, some will hotly dispute this assertion. But I stand by it.

 The announcement of the reprinting of these books and their subsequent publication evoked quite a number of reactions: nostalgia from old-timers like me; trepidation from a few who feared the originals would be tampered with; curiosity from those who had never seen them, and had only heard rhapsodizing about their power; and quite a bit of excitement from all corners. Few things ever meet with universal acclaim from gamers in general, but the news of these books returning came damned close.

 First, I'll describe the physicality of the books. The covers are new. Smooth and with a faux-leather look, they use imagery from the original covers, though only a portion of it, surrounded by embossed designs. They are gilt-edged, and include bound-in cloth bookmarks. The paper is bright, with a high contrast between it and the printing on it. From what I've read, specifically in this article, the printing was reproduced painstakingly, as there were no computer files of the layouts for these books. The font and layout was reproduced closely, though not quite exactly, in a meticulous process. A cardstock strap "seals" the books closed, and are printed with a plea to support the Gygax Memorial Fund on the front, and a small reproduction of the original covers and a brief history of the books on the back.

Humor leavened the Dungeon Masters Guide.

There are a few glitches. In some cases, art is reproduced a bit too dark and heavily, resulting in some fine detail being muddied and lost, or is faded in some cases. There was at least one ink blotch that I saw. Thirty years of close perusal make these obvious to me, but may be unnoticeable to others.

Two things that trouble me are not glitches, but are absences. First, the original Players Handbook front cover is a truly atmospheric piece of art, with some adventurers regrouping and planning their next move, while others drag lizardman corpses about so as to remove evidence of the adventurers' passage, while still others busy themselves prying the gemmed eyes from a large idol. This last bit is the image seen on the reprint cover. I miss the entire thing, as it really encapsulates what D&D is about. Second, the back cover of the Dungeon Masters Guide is among the most famous images in D&D - the City of Brass on the Elemental Plane of Fire. It's a weird, garish image, and still fires my imagination, no pun intended. I promise. I realize there was no easy way to include these images given the cover design. The books as printed are a classy package, so I don't think the absence of these two images are a detriment to the books. But I do miss them.

It's truly a pleasure to see these books back in print. I still have my originals, worn and battered, as well as less-worn copies of the Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual that I bought in the past few years to help save further wear and tear on my poor old originals. Still, I didn't hesitate to get these new reprints. They're just too nice, and represent an effort to heal a rift between generations of gamers. As strange as it may seem to those who've never played D&D, or any roleplaying game, really, there are "edition wars" among D&D fans, which often get heated, to the point that many online communities have to include a "no edition wars" disclaimer. It's ridiculous, really. But, it is a phenomenon, so it's nice to see something on which so many D&D players across the edition spectrum agree - it's good to see these books. It's good that some of the proceeds go to a memorial for Gygax. It's good to see the current publisher of D&D finally acknowledging and embracing the roots of the game. Plus, the books themselves are like old friends showing back up after being too long away.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Zero Hour!

I kinda dig movie titles with exclamation points.

Zero Hour! is the 1957 Canadian film lampooned brilliantly by Airplane! in 1980. The Zuckers certainly drew on other sources for the avalanche of gags in their film, but Zero Hour! is the solid core of it.

In the closing months of World War II, hotshot Canadian pilot, Ted Stryker, leads a RAF squadron on a daring mission into fog-bound Germany. He also ends up leading six of his pilots straight into the ground.

A decade later, Stryker, a talented pilot who made a mistake, is down on his luck for having avoided flying since the disastrous mission. Finally landing a decent job, he jauntily skips home to find a note from his wife. You saw this coming: she's gone. Stryker rushes to the airport just in time to see her board a plane with their son. He manages to get a ticket and board the plane at a speed that would give a TSA agent a conniption. He then sets about trying to reconcile with her, but she's had it up to here with his mopey bullshit.

Soon, passengers begin falling ill after some horrendously bad halibut is served for dinner. A doctor is drafted from amongst the passengers, and the situation quickly becomes dire - the doctor informs the pilot that if he doesn't land, and soon, there'll be a planeload of corpses landing at Vancouver.

Then, the crew collapses. They had to, or this would have been a pretty boring film.

Now, the auto pilot is all that stands between 38 passengers and oblivion. You can imagine how much I wished the inflatable Otto popped up during this scene.

Turns out that Stryker is the only person onboard with any piloting experience. He's not happy to hear that. He resists being enlisted, but, no, seriously, the stewardess and doctor tell him, either you fly or we crash, and if you're not quick about it, a bunch of people, including your son, will die of food poisoning. Sweat beads on everyone's forehead.

Stryker takes the pilot's seat, joined by his wife, who will work the radio. It's awkward, given the situation. I mean, she just tried to leave him and then told him she couldn't love a man she didn't respect. Yikes. This is almost as bad as when I got dumped in couples counseling.

Did I mention there's a guy onboard whose entire entertainment career is using a sock puppet? Did I mention that he tries to entertain the only kid onboard, Stryker's son? Did I also mention that it's all played seriously, making it geometrically creepier than anything in Airplane!? Well, I'm mentioning it now, and it is.

Sterling Hayden shows up at Vancouver air traffic control to browbeat Stryker to a safe landing. I wonder about the wisdom of having this specific guy, who was Stryker's officer in the war and who thinks he's garbage, man the mic for talking Stryker through it. Hayden's idea of keeping a calm demeanor and inspiring confidence is bellowing into the mic at full blow as he degrades the guy he's trying to help.

From there, it's what you'd expect. Stryker flashes back to the war and puts the plane into a dive. Passengers moan and squirm. Some old guy swigs liquor straight from the bottle. The stewardess and the sock-puppet guy talk about getting married. The doctor dispenses morphine like aspirin. Everyone in Vancouver loosens his tie and looks unshaven after just a couple of hours. Sweat continues to bead on foreheads. The fog is too thick, but Stryker has to land right now.

This movie is a lot of fun. It's a pretty tight film, with the plot clipping along at a gallop. Airplane! parodied the film almost shot-for-shot. So, if you've seen Airplane!, you'll be waiting for the other shoe to drop in most scenes. That's in spite of the fact that the joke will never come, and you know it. Still, Zero Hour! is actually good in and of itself, completely separate from the Bizarro World remake of it in Airplane! Much of the acting is pretty good, with Dana Andrews and Sterling Hayden both standing out. There is some outstanding special effects work, especially the opening World War II air battle using a lot of model work mixed in with full-sized props and real action shots. It's a sharp '50s thriller, and holds up well, with or without a viewing of Airplane! to bolster it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Once and future kings: Rangers of the North - The Kingdom of Arthedain

Even as a kid reading The Lord of the Rings, it struck me as a bad idea for the Rangers to protect the Hobbits so closely that the Hobbits, in large part, ended up as a backwards, naive bunch who took their freedom and safety for granted. I'm sure that's what Tolkien was getting at. But it still bugged me.

The Shire itself is a bucolic place. Quiet, sedate, civilized...seems pretty boring. Nice place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit there. Well, maybe you would, if you were a weary traveler and wanted a good place to eat and sleep, or go antiquing. You wouldn't vacation there if you were looking for something exotic and adventurous.

So it's not too surprising that Iron Crown Enterprises didn't create a Middle-earth Roleplaying sourcebook for the Shire until late. Before then, the Shire appeared in passing in a few supplements, often just a recognizable spot on one of the maps. This book, Rangers of the North: The Kingdom of Arthedain, was the closest thing to a true MERP sourcebook for the Shire until the publication of, naturally enough, The Shire in 1995. I don't have that book. Never even saw it. By that late in MERP's run, fewer and fewer of the books for it showed up in any book or game stores I frequented. Finding a copy now would involve luck and a good bit of money, judging by the hundreds of dollars I've seen it go for online.

Rangers of the North: The Kingdom of Arthedain details the entire region in which the Shire exists, and lays out the history of the area, focusing mainly on the origins of Arthedain. Arthedain was a kingdom that was once part of Arnor, the great northern kingdom of the Dunedain, who are Aragorn's people. Arnor was the counterpart and sister-kingdom of Gondor. Unlike Gondor, which remained relatively intact throughout its history, Arnor eventually broke up into three kingdoms: Arthedain, Cardolan, and Rhudaur. The latter two kingdoms eventually fell to the influence of Sauron - Rhudaur comes under the sway of the Witch-king and eventually is taken by his forces, while Cardolan survives for centuries until overrun by Angmar, the Witch-king's realm. Arthedain remains a bulwark, opposing Angmar for centuries more on its own, but even it, too, succumbs a thousand years before the time of The Hobbit. The survivors of Arthedain are few, and those not killed or who don't move elsewhere, including the royal line, scatter into the wild. There they live, becoming the Rangers, until Aragorn manages to claim the kingship of Gondor and resurrects Arnor, reclaiming the two kingdoms.

I assume these are, left to right, an Arnorien warrior, an Arthedain knight, and a Ranger.

While Arthedain stood, it granted land to the Hobbits, who had migrated West as the forces of the Shadow became more and more common. That land was what became the Shire. After Arthedain fell, the Shire was the last densely-populated, civilized area left in what was once Arthedain, so it makes sense that the Rangers felt obligated to protect it.

Now, I told you all that to illustrate just how much history, culture, and territory this book covers. As with Rohan, the area changed hands many times between mortal hands, unlike Elven realms like Lorien, Rivendell, or the Elven Kingdom of Mirkwood. This book is 56 pages long, and includes the usual flora/fauna/weather overviews and charts of people, creatures, and plants the players in a game could encounter in the region, as well as the wearisome game infodump at the beginning, this time five pages worth. It's pretty densely-packed.

From the standpoint of a gamer, this book makes for a great "lost kingdom" sourcebook. In fact, several other MERP books complement it very nicely: Lost Realms of Cardolan is the neighboring region; Hillmen of the Trollshaws covers part of Rhudaur; Weathertop - the Tower of the Wind lies near the borders of all three of the erstwhile kingdoms of Arthedain, Cardolan, and Rhudaur; Rivendell is nestled just beyond what was once Rhudaur; Bree and the Barrow Downs borders the Shire; and Angmar is the northern realm of the Witch-king that directly caused the downfall of all the kingdoms.

I didn't like this book for a long, long time. Part of it is the art. Technically, it's not bad. It just isn't very dynamic, in my opinion, and also seems to miss the point of the book. Besides the maps - which are almost completely outstanding - and a few spot illustrations that are there for the sake of breaking up the layout, there are a half dozen or so actual illustrations showing characters and situations in the region. The main problem I have with them is that none of them show characters or places that are familiar. No Hobbits, wizards, or Rangers that I can readily point to and say "oh, that must be so-and-so." There are no exciting scenes from Middle-earth history, which is really odd, and almost seems like they went out of their way to avoid illustrating any of the numerous historical events that occurred in Arthedain. Heck, why not a picture of Marcho and Blanco, the Hobbits who founded the Shire, actually founding the Shire? Or pictures of Rangers roaming the wilds, protecting what remnants of fallen Arthedain still stand? Or a picture from the enormous battle involving Elves, Men, and the forces of Angmar that overran Arthedain? Instead, the images we get include a picture of Northmen paddling a canoe, a static shot of two Arctic-dwelling folk called Lossoth, and a picture of what I assume is the seer Malbeth being tempted by what he might see in a palantir. I still dislike the art. The cover is the closest thing to being a dynamic picture, and even it doesn't really capture the setting - why is a Dwarf there, when an Elf or a Hobbit would have better represented the population of the area? Like I said, there is talent in evidence here, but the art order must have been off-course.

The maps, though, are pretty nice.

Annuminas, the long-ruined capitol of the nearly-forgotten Kingdom of Arnor.

Fornost Erain, capital of Arthedain, long-ruined also, such that the Hobbits call it Deadman's Dike.

A portion of Arthedain; the northern part of the Shire and Bree can be seen along the bottom.

 Another reason I disliked the book is that I really wanted a sourcebook of the region as I knew it from the main narrative of The Lord of the Rings. This objection has faded over the years. Now, I enjoy it for how much context it gives. As with other sourcebooks for MERP, I think it would work really well as a lost kingdom for another setting by simply renaming everything. Or not. Maybe use it as an "alternate universe" Middle-earth. It would also be a good source for a Fourth Age setting, when Aragorn, now called king Elessar, is rebuilding both Gondor and Arnor. There's a lot of possibility in this book, especially as much of it was never directly shown by Tolkien.

A lot of these books have caused me to enter a kind of reverie as I've paged through them. This one has, also, but it doesn't evoke as much nostalgia as some. This one evokes thoughts of the future. The place is full of potential, rooted in deep history. As I sit and think, my thoughts turn towards my own life. And why not? This sourcebook draws on a great work of literature, and all great literature causes us to reflect upon our own existence. We search for the meaning within it by relating it to our own experiences, or explore how we might react in the place of the characters. Reading the timelines and history of the Rangers, I'm struck by how powerful a will Aragorn must have had. Patiently wandering the wild, no real hope of ever achieving his destiny, yet still he strove onward, never wavering from his goal. I wonder how I would face the kinds of obstacles he faced. It's interesting to recall that Aragorn never judged others harshly, and understood everyone had their own limits; witness his flexibility in sending to take the island of Cair Andros those whose courage failed them in the march to Mordor. Rather than force them beyond their limits, he found a goal within their limits. It is up to the individual to know their limits, and decide just where those limits of hope and courage and love are.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

My Favorite Starships

Lists abound in the internet ether. So, why not make one of my own? Here's a subject near and dear to my heart - my favorite fictional (and maybe a few not-so-fictional) starships. There's no particular order here.

Cygnus – Parked at the brink of the event horizon of the titular Black Hole of Disney’s first PG movie, the Cygnus hangs like a celestial Gothic cathedral on the edge of Hell’s gate. It’s a combination of delicate detail and imposing size, golden light caged by dark metal. 

C-57-DForbidden Planet, the 1956 science fiction classic, turns the ‘50s obsession with UFOs on its head, casting a flying saucer in the role of an Earth-based ship manned by humans. The C-57-D is a United Planets cruiser patrolling the spaceways. Its crew would be echoed a decade later in Star Trek, and the C-57-D itself would be echoed in the design of the Enterprise. One of the things that really endears this ship to me is that United Planets cruisers don’t even rate individual names, and are identified only by a number/letter combination.

USS Saratoga – The SCVN 2812, a Kennedy-class nuclear space carrier in the US Space Navy, is the base ship for the plucky Marine pilots of the short-lived Space: Above and Beyond. Basically a flying brick, the Sara was a big brute of a ship, equipped with an air/space wing of fighters and powerful weapons of its own. In effect, it was an Imperial Star Destroyer done right. When Commodore Ross growled “take that thing out of my sky,” there was no doubt the Saratoga could do so.

Carl Sagan’s Dandelion Seed Ship – This ethereal, delicate vessel floated across time and space, opening up the vast cosmos to me at an impressionable age. Sagan working the jewel-like controls in a vaguely church-like bridge had the potential to look silly, but it ended up looking timeless and inspiring.

USS Enterprise – Spare and utilitarian, the most iconic of science fiction ships explored the galaxy on the original Star Trek. There is an implied pragmatism to it, with engines held away from the ship on spars, yet there is a simple, timeless beauty. It would be redone as a more sleek, streamlined vessel in the movies, but I have always preferred the original, which looks like it could be built by NASA in a few decades.

ProtectorGalaxyQuest may have been a parody and satire of Star Trek, but unlike most such lampoons, they didn’t skimp on FX or designs. The Protector is a beautiful ship, graceful and clean-lined, obviously inspired by the Star Trek movies’ sleek Enterprise. Yet, it has a memorable look of its own. Give her a competent crew and send her on a mission, Hollywood!

Warlock – Menacing and jagged, this ship design came late in the Babylon 5 story, appearing briefly in a movie and in the B5 sequel TV series Crusade. That’s too bad, because it’s a badass spaceship. 

HyperionBabylon 5 came up with a lot of nifty spaceships, and the Hyperion heavy cruiser is another one of my favorites. Its resemblance to a submarine is no coincidence, but the role it plays is more battlecruiser than sub. Though it had been decisively outclassed by its Minbari opponents, it was the backbone of the human fleet up until the time of Babylon 5. It’s a tough-looking, handsome ship.

Narn G’Quan-class Heavy Cruiser, Babylon 5 – The Narn are a massive, reptilian race of aliens with a strong fighting spirit and sense of pride. Their ships reflect a stately bearing with a touch of the brutish about them. The most powerful of them, the G’Quan class, is a big, imposing wedge with a crazy black/red/green paint scheme. These ships seem about as maneuverable as a barge. Moving in a slow and stately fashion may suit a passenger ship, but this is a warship. It helps that it seems to be tough and able to shrug off damage, but it also seems to be technologically inferior to many of its opponents. Regardless, they have an attractive configuration and coloration, and a sense of power about them.

Centauri Vorchan-class Cruiser, Babylon 5 – The Centauri are aliens with an old, decadent empire, and their ships are oddly graceful, as if they were designed as much for style as for function. Plus, most of them are purple, which is an unusual color for spaceships. They look like what they are – the product of a culture long used to traveling in space.

Mule, from Spacecraft 2000-2100AD, part of the Terran Trade Authority (TTA) universe (original painting by Colin Hay, titled Space Tug) – The Mule is a class of space tugs, and looks the part. Simple and ugly, they have a rugged appearance. I dig when artists deal with non-fighting vessels, and the Mule seems like something that might be seen stolidly shoving and pulling other vessels around in some space harbor of the future. This is without a doubt my favorite TTA ship. It isn’t slick and glamorous; it looks like a working ship. I love that about it.

General Products Hull, Larry Niven's Known Space stories – Basically a huge, hollow, transparent needle, these spacecraft hulls are nigh-indestructible. Produced and sold by the Pierson’s Puppeteers, an alien race with a culture based on mercantilism, the General Products Hulls are found all over Larry Niven’s Known Space setting.

Leif Ericson – a classic spacecraft model from the late 1960s, the Leif Ericson remains a popular subject for model-makers. It just looks like a classic starship, though it’s an original design, not based on a movie or book. In fact, the Ericson would prove so popular that it inspired the MacArthur, the main starship in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournell’s classic space opera The Mote in God’s Eye. A variant of it was produced as a glow-in-the-dark model, renamed the Interplanetary UFO Mystery Ship. Regardless of the name or its glow-in-the-dark qualities, the ship has a timelessly retro look that fires the imagination. 

USS Merrimack – The Mack is the heart of R.M. Meluch’s action-packed and often audaciously crazy Tour of the Merrimack series of books. Although there doesn’t seem to be a definitive picture of the ship, it’s described as a big wedge-shape, in my mind’s eye something like a sleeker, more shark-like take on the Imperial Star Destroyer of Star Wars. The books are a rollicking good time, and the Merrimack is commanded by Commodore John Farragut, a space opera hero in the classic mode, surrounded by a whole cast of vividly-rendered characters. Make no mistake; the Mack herself is a character, just as the Enterprise was in Star Trek. Tough, fast, and equipped with space fighters and broadside weapons, the Merrimack is a solid presence in a four-color universe.

Imperial Star Destroyer – Synonymous with Imperial power, the Imperial Star Destroyer looms large over the Star Wars franchise. The memorable image of a Star Destroyer hulking above the audience at the beginning of Star Wars (back before it had “A New Hope” added to it) was an ominous, breathtaking way to firmly establish the power and oppression of the Empire. Yet…they’re paper tigers. Not once do they demonstrate a real knock-out punch when engaged in anything like a fair fight, and they continually have freighters and fighters running rings around them. Their designers seem to have forgotten to provide a really big, decisive weapon. If they did, it was never trotted out in the movies. In a way, they’re symbolic of the Empire itself – huge and menacing, but ultimately ineffectual. Still, for sheer iconic imagery, their big, simple wedge shapes are an indelible part of the Star Wars saga.

Rebel Transport – strangely shaped, like ragged-edged clamshells, the Rebel Transport has a workmanlike appearance nonetheless. However, they have an odd beauty to them, a worn-out, lived-in beauty that is both akin to but unlike that of the Millennium Falcon. One can imagine intrepid crews having their own adventures as they slip through Imperial blockades and smuggle goods to Rebel bases.

Apollo 27, model kit – A fun, retro design, harkening back to an age when spacecraft were sleek and stylish…at least, in our imaginations.  Sure, it’s impractical, but we can only hope real spaceships end up looking this cool. This is a throwback to when models could be whimsical and not have to be based on a well-established franchise.

Discovery – Spare but elegant, the Discovery is a hub of mystery in both the movie 2001 and its long-afterward sequel, 2010. Yet, it still has a realistic, practical look. Its brightly-lit, white interior somehow adds to the sterile, implacable horror of a computer gone mad. 

Klingon D-7 – The sleek angularity of the quintessential Klingon ship from the original Star Trek TV series evokes a feeling of alien menace. It’s oddly graceful, yet an unmistakable threat.

Romulan Bird of Prey – A really ungainly design, this ship always struck me as being technologically behind the times in comparison to the Enterprise, retrofitted with a powerful weapon to close the gap between the Romulan Empire and the Federation. The comparison between it and a submarine, at least in purpose if not intent, is obvious, and brings with it the claustrophobic “feel” of a submarine movie.

Ragnarok Orbital Interceptor – Many, many Moons ago, I owned and assembled this model kit. Bearing a resemblance to real-world X-craft and the SR-71, I was fascinated by this model. The parasite fighter nestled in the tail of the plane added to the fun. OK, so technically not a spaceship, I always pretended it was.

Eagle – The iconic utility space vessel of the TV show Space: 1999. Show creator Gerry Anderson is famous for his puppet-based movies and TV shows, primarily Thunderbirds. Savagely – and hilariously – lampooned in Team America, Anderson’s style is unique. His various vehicle designs are attractive and somehow realistic. When he decided to do a science fiction TV show, he went with human actors instead of puppets, but retained his trademark model work for Moon Base Alpha and its fleet of utility spaceships. The Eagle looks like a real spacecraft design. The only beauty to it is its pragmatic look; you can just tell it’s a working vehicle.

Y-Wing Fighter – Sure, the X-Wing is the sexy beast for the Rebel Alliance, but the Y-Wing has the appearance of a workhorse. Tired, maybe, but tough, with no frills and exposed wiring and tubing. This is my favorite Star Wars ship. 

Shapieron – This ship is from James Hogan’s Giants series of books. Flung 25 million years into the future – our present – by moving at relativistic speeds (more or less, as I understood it) the Shapieron belongs to the Ganymeans, an alien race of giants whose very physiology discourages violence. The Shapieron is a well-worn ship, and my understanding of its appearance is that it’s in the classic delta-V mode, though more organic – but maybe my mind’s-eye has the description wrong. But what’s important is that the Shapieron is a sturdy, dependable ship, home to its crew for its impossibly long voyage. It also houses one of the great artificial intelligences in science fiction, ZORAC. The picture is the cover of the third book in the series; it may depict the Shapieron, given that it’s roughly the same shape as described in the books. Not much like I envision, but still nifty, and by the late, great Darrell K. Sweet.

Rama, from Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – An enormous flying tube, from parts unknown, hurtles into the Solar System. Humans send a ship to rendezvous with it, and find it to be filled with the makings for a colony or planetary ecosystem construction. I’ve only read the first book of what became a series, but I enjoy the sheer mystery of Rama, as it brakes and then proceeds to slingshot off the Sun’s gravity to fly out of our space. Rama is an enigma, underscoring the immensity of space and its endless possibilities.

Valley Forge - the 1971 film Silent Running, starring the often-askew Bruce Dern, presented some unique and interesting ships, further examples of fictional ships that look like they could be on NASA’s drawing boards. The Valley Forge consists of a tug or transport vessel with domes attached. These domes contain the last of Earth’s wilderness flora and fauna. The ship has a stark, practical look, another working vessel, but with a few bits of beauty attached. The model would later be reused for the original Battlestar Galactica.

Satellite of Love – The setting for Mystery Science Theater 3000, the SoL (get it?) was both home and prison to Joel, then Mike, and their robot buddies Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot. Shaped like a…bone, the SoL seemed ruled by cartoon physics and logic. 

The Great Unmanned Space Vessel, from the book Galactic Aliens – Weird and organic-looking, this thing is stupendously large – 16,000 km in length! Its passengers long-since killed off, this pushing-10,000-mile-long ship is now maintained by robots. The trouble is, the aliens that built it were extremely xenophobic, and the ship’s programming now directs it to destroy all life it encounters, helped along by its impenetrable force field and overwhelming weaponry. Silly fun from a goofy book. 

Saucers from Earth vs the Flying Saucers – Ray Harryhausen brings to life some of the most spectacular flying saucers to grace the screen. They have a distinct whine as they fly, that rises to an eerie howl when moving quickly. Toss in a force field of some kind, death rays, and wavery-voiced aliens in cool armored suits, and these are the saucers that leap to mind when ‘50s scifi is the subject.

Buck Rogers Starfighters – The TV show was campy and silly, but the Earth-based starfighters were still all kinds of cool. Barbed and graceful, they looked like they belonged in another show.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Mothership – I saw Close Encounters at the theater when it was released, and the appearance of the Mothership was truly awe-inspiring. A great flying city of the night, lit up like a Christmas tree, carefully and effortlessly flipping over as it prepares to land is one of the most memorable scenes ever in cinematic science fiction. 

Space Battleship Yamato – The ship around which the Japanese animated TV series Star Blazers was based, the mighty Yamato was the refurbished World War II-era Japanese superbattleship of the same name. Bristling with weapons and possessed of a wing of space fighters, the ship was built around its ridiculously powerful wave motion gun, which could destroy planets. When the wave motion gun was fired up, everything else paled in comparison. A wide variety of similar-looking ships would eventually crowd the Star Blazers universe (check out the wonderful Andromeda, for example), but the Yamato was the first and most-beloved.

Battlestar Galactica – This is an iconic ship in science fiction whether it’s the stalwart original or the sleeker, segmented-looking revamp. The original has a stately look, dignified and utilitarian, while the updated version reminds me of a grim, close-up fighter with a surprising jab. The concept of a carrier in space which is also heavily armed and armored has always appealed to me. 

Interstellar craft from Cosmos, the book – Carl Sagan included some schematics for possible interstellar spacecraft in the book, Cosmos. Their inclusion added to the wonder I felt from reading this book and watching its subsequent TV companion. Though ungainly-looking, they lent an air of excitement to the notion of travel between the stars, because these ships looked real

X-Wing Fighter, Star Wars – I almost left it off the list. It’s almost too iconic, too ingrained into my psyche as a science fiction fan. It almost goes without saying this ship is among my favorites. Sure, the Y-Wing became my favorite, but the X-Wing long held the top spot. To me, this ship is indelibly etched on my mind, the first image that leaps to my mind when I think of Star Wars. It just looks like what it is – a space superiority fighter.

TIE Fighter, Star Wars – And what is the X-Wing without its eternal nemesis, the Imperial TIE Fighter? It lacks grace and beauty, and seems as durable as a soap bubble, but it’s the ubiquity of the ship that makes it a perfect foe for the Rebel Alliance. Plus, its distinctive screaming roar – regardless of the fact that there is no sound in space – is among the most recognizable sounds from film.