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Saturday 31 January 2015

Martian britches

Some other examples of science fantasy novels are shown here. Don't let my juvenile scribblings in the genre put you off. And incidentally not all science fantasy series garb their characters in loincloths. The inhabitants of Krishna get to wear long trousers and jackets at times.

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“The World of Krishna” part 8: “The End of the Dasht”

Suddenly the Dasht found himself held from behind. Acer’s companions had come to their senses just in time.

With the strength of a madman, which is what he was, the Dasht broke away.

“You’ll never take me alive!” screamed the Dasht. He rushed over to a bank of switches and clicked them all into the on position. The Dasht rushed over to one of the disks and jumped on. In his haste, the Dasht stepped onto the receiving disk instead of the transmitting disk.

The computer that operated the disk now had to bring an object to the control room that was already there.

There was a blood-curdling scream and a terrible explosion. When the smoke had cleared, all that was left on the disk was a pulsating blob of protoplasm.

The Dasht’s guards were, of course, Earthmen and were sent back to Earth to serve a prison sentence.

As for Acer, he was very thirsty. He didn’t have to tell his aya where to go. It knew by habit.

Friday 30 January 2015

How's this for racial stereotyping?

Scooby-Doo wasn't around when I wrote this science fantasy story aged 10, so I must have invented the "if not for you" cliché. Only one more instalment to go, you patient souls.

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“The World of Krishna” part 7: “The Unmasking”

Just then the Dasht walked into the room. He was about six and a half marts* tall.

Acer noticed that the Dasht’s cheekbones were wider than a normal Krishnan’s, more like an Earthman’s.

Acer took a flying leap into the room. As soon as he alighted he ran toward the Dasht. Before Acer could reach the evil Larock, three guards ran to him.

“Let me go, you fools,” shouted Acer. With a superhuman effort, the angry Krishnan wrenched free and flung himself at the Dasht.

Acer took hold of Dasht Larock’s antennae and, to everyone’s amazement, pulled them off! “You see, he’s an Earthman,” yelled Acer.

“Why you blasted Krishnan primitive,” screamed the Dasht. “If not for you, I’d have been the ruler of the planet Krishna! You’ll die for this, you’ll DIE!”

The hysterical Earthman levelled a gun at Acer’s head as his finger tightened on the trigger.

(*Mart: a Krishnan foot.)

To be continued.

Thursday 29 January 2015


The very essence of science fantasy is that it's set on worlds where technology has become indistinguishable from magic. No doubt Professor M A R Barker, creator of Tekumel, was raised on Planet Stories and he too may have been a fan of L Sprague de Camp's Krishna books. Little did I know as I teased out this wee yarn in primary school English lessons that ten years later I would have my heart and at least half my psyche in Jakalla.

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“The World of Krishna” part 6: “Escape”

Acer slugged the turnkey and opened the cell doors. The prisoners flocked out. Acer led his fellow Krishnans to the Dasht’s room. They gasped when they saw inside the chamber. On the floor of the room was a glowing disk. A group of the Dasht’s soldiers stepped onto the disk and vanished. A few feet away, a soldier was materializing on a similar disk.

“So that’s how they got us here,” thought Acer. “Witchcraft.”

It wasn’t really magic but Krishnans are very superstitious.

To be continued.

Wednesday 28 January 2015

If you want to get ahead...

With the fifth instalment of his Krishna story, my young self has introduced an element of mystery. I'm still astonished to think of the poor teacher having to follow thirty different kids' stories in such tiny weekly chunks.

I see that I had latched onto the technique of implying events and letting the reader fill in the gaps. After decades of movie-going, it's a little harder to write that way now.

That's L Sprague de Camp there, quaffing cragot.

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“The World of Krishna” part 5: “The Dasht” 

Within moments Acer had completely vanished. He reappeared in an old stone dungeon. Around him were a few of the missing people.

Acer asked one where he was. “In the castle of Dasht* Larock,” was the reply. “He’s caught us to be his slaves.”

About an hour later, one of the Dasht’s guards brought a tray full of food for the prisoners. Two minutes later, Acer left the cell in the guard’s clothes. Meanwhile the prisoners dragged the guard into the corner of the cell. He was out cold.

(*A dasht is a Krishnan baron.)

To be continued.

Tuesday 27 January 2015

Pop goes the weasel

Ah, now we get to the fourth instalment of my old Krishna fanfic and it seems the 10-year-old Morris has finally grasped that this thing needs a plot. Teleportation was my dream mutant power (I wanted to be the Vanisher, even if it meant losing my hair) so that's where that came from. "Queer" had a different meaning in 1967, of course.

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“The World of Krishna” part 4

Acer performed a karate chop on his assailant’s arm and the attacker released him with a yell.

Acer drew his sword and brought an end to the matter. He turned to see the robber’s aya, which was tethered to a tree.

Acer released the aya and rode off on it.

Soon he came to the city. It was deserted!

Acer searched everywhere in the city but could find nobody.

Just then he felt queer. He looked down and saw that he was vanishing!

To be continued.

Monday 26 January 2015

Wild in the country

Another thrilling instalment in my childhood attempt at fanfic for the world of Krishna. I suppose I had at least grasped the importance of reversals, though probably not in a form that would have impressed Aristotle. Or Robert E Howard, come to that. If the illustration (probably also by a 10-year-old) doesn't put you off, take a look at the GURPS sourcebook.

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“The World of Krishna” part 3

Quick as a flash, Acer drew his sword. He swung at the yeki. It jumped aside and the sword flew out of Acer’s hands, jamming point-upwards among some stones.

The yeki leapt at Acer. He ducked and it was impaled on the sword.

A little while later, Acer was walking along when he heard a rustle in the bushes. A person leapt on him and began to strangle him.

To be continued.

Sunday 25 January 2015

Carnage and a glass of cragot

More of my 10-year-old self's stab at fanfic.I see my obsession with having drinks served ice cold (Singha these days) was already firmly in place. And to think my primary school teacher had to wait a whole week between instalments...

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“The World of Krishna” part 2

Acer knew at once that he was being threatened by a robber. He leapt forward, spun around, and drew his sword.

The robber turned to run but he was too late. Acer’s blade came crashing down on his shoulder. The robber staggered to the wall, minus one ear and with his left arm hanging by a few strands of skin.

Having defeated the robber, Acer sat down and finished his roast shomal. He was then handed a bowl of live worms. He ate those and ordered another goblet of cragot. Cragot is like a mixture of champagne and shandy and must always be served ice cold.

An hour later, Acer was walking in the country when a wild yeki leapt in front of him.

To be continued.

Saturday 24 January 2015

My L Sprague de Camp fanfic

Here's the first instalment of my story set on the planet Krishna. I was only 10 years old and yet I feel it's on a par with some of the Beast Quest books, for example. I realize that's not saying much. The entry from my primary school exercise book begins by setting the scene...

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I am reading a book called A Planet Called Krishna. The author is L Sprague de Camp.

Krishna is a planet very similar to Earth in Roman times. Krishnans are just like humans except they have two short antennae.

Here is my own story about Krishna:

“The World of Krishna” part 1

Acer lom-Tanoc stood in a Krishnan inn. The innkeeper scurried up to him and handed him a menu.

Acer sat down and contemplated the list of meals. He ordered a roast shomal and a glass of cragot. (Cragot is the Krishnans’ answer to beer.)

Suddenly he felt a dagger-point touching the back of his neck.

Thursday 22 January 2015

Swords and old science

A little way along from Ashplants, where I bought magnesium ribbon, and the newsagent’s where I got the latest Marvel comics, was a second-hand bookshop in the proper old style. Two long rooms – dirty, musty, dark. Trestles covered in books, many of which could have done with a dusting of antifungal powder before you touched them. It’s not there now. You’d have to set your Tardis for Woking in the late 1960s.

I got my copy of Amazing Spider-Man #12 in that second-hand bookshop. It was tatty and torn, more like a relic of Victorian times than the three-year-old comic I now know it to have been. But who cares? It was Lee and Ditko, and this was the issue in which Spidey was “Unmasked by Doctor Octopus!” In colour. ‘Nuff said.

It was also where I discovered science fantasy, in the form of Edward Powys Bradbury’s Mars books. Airships and swordplay meet blasters and psionic aliens. It was a Damascene moment, like when I first learned that dinosaurs had actually walked the Earth. A thing that would have been cool enough if merely imaginary turned out to be honest-to-gosh real.

Memory plays tricks, so probably I didn’t cotton on that science fantasy was an actual genre until I came across a second instance of it: L Sprague de Camp’s A Planet Called Krishna. John Carter and Thongor of Lemuria were still in my future then, but the seed had been planted that would inevitably make me an aficionado of the world of Tekumel ten years later.

What reminded me of all this was clearing out my mum’s things and finding an old exercise book that she had kept from my primary school days. It’s an interesting little snapshot of the past. I talk about dinosaurs, comic books, the coming decimalization, everyday events, and the RAF. There are reviews of You Only Live Twice, The Lair of the White Worm – the book, that is – and The Great Ghidrah. (The last of those, according to Wiki, was released as Invasion of Astro Monster but I was there and I can tell you what I saw.)

And there’s a story set on de Camp’s world of Krishna. It wasn’t my first stab at fiction – the year before I’d begun a sequel to Dracula, which opened with Jonathan’s and Mina’s grandson arriving at Dublin airport. A lost classic, obviously. The Krishna story came about because we had a student teacher for English lessons who encouraged us to write a story every Monday morning. I began my Krishna serial and I remember the teacher was concerned because he thought he was going to leave without reading the last instalment, but then he got an extra week at the school and signed off with “Very good indeed, +1”. After that it was goodbye to fiction as our regular teacher just wanted us to describe what we did over the weekends. I wish I could remember the student teacher’s name. He was the only one of them worth a damn at that primary school.

Anyway, people are always on at me to write like I did twenty years ago, so from Saturday I’ll run the reductio ad absurdum of that: my writing at age ten. The Fabled Lands started there, folks. Amazing as it seems in this age of trigger warnings and young people who get traumatized if you so much as challenge their dearest assumptions, the level of bloodthirstiness in the story was pretty typical of ten-year-old boys in the 1960s and nobody sent us for counselling because of it. When you read the story you may decide they should have.

Thursday 15 January 2015

Pixel perfect

I've been wanting to show you this artwork for a while and now I can. A while back, internationally renowned art studio Clonefront Entertainment were asked to create digital colour paintings of many of Russ Nicholson's iconic Fabled Lands drawings. For a long while these amazing paintings have languished in legal limbo. The details of that are hearsay so I won't repeat them here but in any case, as derived works, the paintings always remained Russ's copyright.

But now Mikael Louys of Megara Entertainment has come to the rescue, sealing a deal with Russ and Arpad Olbey, CEO of Clonefront, that will allow him to use the colour paintings in a range of products, starting with the hardback edition of The Keep of the Lich Lord (from which these two pictures are taken) and moving on later next year to an all-new Fabled Lands role-playing project.

And not only that - I just looked on Clonefront's website and came across this stunning image of a manta car from Heart of Ice. We were planning to use this as the cover of the epub3 version but that, of course, never happened. That was a blow, but there's always a silver lining - in this case, the strong possibility of a multi-platform app from Cubus Games, who did such a great job adapting Necklace of Skulls. That won't use this artwork, but something totally new, original and unexpected by Jaume Carballo's madly skilled creative team. Watch this space.

Friday 9 January 2015

Reflections on Black Mirror

In role-playing, storytelling interests me not as the exercise of craft but as something that emerges organically and unpredictably from the whole group. The referee ("Dungeon Master" in some circles) has no business foisting his or her own plot on everyone else. But in most forms of interactive fiction, from gamebooks to videogames, you have to design at least some of the story elements in advance. The gamebook author or game designer needs to be aware of what fiction can be at its very best. In that spirit, here's an example of some very clever writing by Charlie Brooker from his disturbing SF series Black Mirror, a worthy modern successor to the classic BBC anthology series Out Of The Unknown.

In an early scene in “Be Right Back”, the opening episode of season two, Ash and his wife Martha are moving into the house where he grew up. Ash tweets a photo of himself as a kid and Martha comments that it’s sweet. He tells her that it was taken on the first family trip after his brother died. They went to a safari park and “there were monkeys all over the car and nobody said anything.” The smile in the photo was fake, he says, but Martha says that doesn’t matter; his mother didn’t know that, and that’s why she kept the picture on display. That leads Ash on to talking about how his mother took down all his brother’s photos when he died. And the same with his father – “They all went up” (to the attic).

I'll come back to what's so good about that scene, but first let's look at how Brooker handles the nuts and bolts of plot development. This is going to get spoilery, by the way, so go and watch the episode first. Ash is killed in a car accident. Martha is told about a service that helps people to deal with grief by giving them a simulated version of the deceased to talk to. The simulation is based on all records the dead person left – social media, emails, blogs and so on.

A lot of that will have been in the publicity copy for the episode. It would be hard to come to it without already knowing that it's about a wife who deals with her husband's death by getting an AI simulation of him. So how does the writer get us to go along with that without just seeming to go through the motions? The base-level technique is always resistance; if the character resists, the viewer is forced to root for the change. So, naturally, when first told about the service she refuses to listen. Her friend signs her up and she gets an email from “Ash”, which she immediately deletes. But Brooker is too good a writer to let resistance carry us through on its own...

Martha discovers she’s pregnant and, unable to reach her sister, she logs on just to tell “him” the news. She finds that consoling enough to agree to talk to him on the phone after uploading private emails and other documents to help round out the simulation.

Leaving the surgery after an ultrasound scan, she drops her phone while playing the baby’s heartbeat to the Ash AI. Of course the AI is in the cloud, but the broken phone scratches open that raw wound of grief. When she gets home and can speak to him again, she agrees to move “to the next level” – an android body into which Ash’s simulated personality is downloaded.

Notice how each step in this progression is tied to the secondary plot development: Martha’s pregnancy. Without that, we’d just go cycling through the stages of the relationship from text to speech to physical body. Even with token resistance from Martha, that would feel like jumping through inevitable hoops. But the even more predictable progression of the pregnancy grounds the current of expectation, so that the consequent development of the relationship with the Ash AI (right up to a kind of home birth in the bath, incidentally, to get the android started) feels uncontrived.

Back to the first scene. A great scene is always loaded with meaning, and this one achieves a number of things with subtlety, economy and clarity. First and most obviously, it shows us that Ash is very active online; he’s barely in the house before he’s tweeting the photo. But that’s just a plot set-up for later. More importantly, the scene introduces the theme of how to deal with grief. “Nobody said anything,” and the photos that were packed away in the attic. From which it’s clear that denial is regarded as unhealthy, and the drama that follows will explore the diametric opposite: keeping the deceased in your life.

There’s also a story seed planted here. Does it matter that young Ash’s smile was faked for his parent’s sake? Martha thinks not, and she’s about to have a relationship with an android who is faking its whole identity for her sake.

Finally, the scene foreshadows the very end of the story, where we come back after the birth of Martha’s daughter to find out what she has done with the Ash android. He’s in the attic, just like those photos.