Sunday, October 23, 2016

Non-Fiction Review: The Proud Tower

Though it's an older book, Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 makes for a very readable presentation on what the world of 1890-1914 was like. It is worth noting her focus was on the western world, centered around the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Germany, and the United States, as well their interactions with other countries.

Tuchman noted that she deliberately does not discuss World War 1. It's an interesting choice, given how well we know it is looming over this book. As she explained it, given the people she portrays were not aware of what was to come, she wanted to present their world free of it. That's not to say they were totally ignorant of the possibility of the coming war - many times she mentions the feeling that various personalities she covers have about an upcoming war - often looking forward to it with a nationalistic pride. But clearly, none could know what a disaster for humanity the war would prove to be.

Tuchman divides her book into a series of overlapping essays that cover overlapping periods. They are:
  • The Patricians: England: 1895-1902. A view of upper class English society.
  • The Idea and the Deed: The Anarchists: 1890-1914. Presents the anarchist movement of the period. I found this chapter rather interesting given how while we've no real anarchist movement in oujr era but we do have familiarity with the fear of the terrorist.
  • End of a Dream: The United States: 1890-1902. Covers the transition of the United States to an Imperial Power with the Spanish-American War and the battles of Thomas Reed in the House of Representatives to turn that entity into an effective governing body.
  • Give Me Combat: France: 1894-1899. Focused around the impact the Dreyfus Affair had on France.
  • The Steady Drummer: The Hague: 1899 and 1907. Covers the peace conferences of 1899 and 1907 with the Imperial powers trying to accomplish nothing that could put them at a disadvantage while having something to take to their people at home.
  • Neroim is in the Air: Germany: 1890-1914. Imperial Germany with an emphasis on the music of Strauss.
  • Transfer of Power: England: 1902-1911. The Liberals take control of the government of the UK, with the aid of Labour. The breaking of the power of the House of Lords.
  • The Death of Jaurès: The Socialists: 1890-1914. The international socialist movement as it swings between practicality and idealism, especially as a world war looms.
As a collection of essays, Tuchman did not present the absolute definitive work of all details of live before World War 1 - any of those essays could be (and has been) made into an entire work unto itself. But she did provide a very reasonable overview that gives a series of tastes that gives us an interesting perspective on the dreams and worries of the people who lived before World War 1.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Call of Cthulhu Actual Play: The Case of Mister Nichols Part 1

This adventure writeup is a little different, taking the form of the note characters might take while pursuing a case.


Monday, October 17, 2016

Actual Play: First Impressions of Pulp Cthulhu

We just had our first Penny Dreadful Cthulhu game, giving us our first opportunity to try out the Pulp Cthulhu rules changes. We decided to go with the default level of pulpiness - PCs have double their normal hit points, more skills, and possess talents that provide minor enhancements or supernatural abilities.

As I'd suspected, the game is definitely still Call of Cthulhu - creepy animated dummies are still a bit endangering to one's sanity. I did notice an overall improvement in character competence and the fact that some characters had psychic abilities did make a difference as well. I noticed that for the most part these abilities sped up play - psychic powers proved a nice way to make sure characters had enough information to proceed. Also, luck being more flexible kept things moving nicely.

There wasn't a whole lot of combat so I cant yet comment on what sort of a difference the changes make for that. I feel a bit guilty about a low-combat pulp game, but there was a nice action seen involving wrestling an animated, razor-wielding ventriloquist's dummy back into its box. And I also learned I need to review grappling rules for Call of Cthulhu.

Overall it was fun. The Cthulhu by Gaslight era seems to fit the pulp genre just fine. I definitely think there will be a visit to the United States, where my knowledge of the USA in that period is a bit superior to mine of the UK of the same period. Anyone want to hook me up with a six-month vacation to London? For research purposes of course...

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fiction Review: 'Salem's Lot

The town knew about darkness.
It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when roatation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul.
- 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King, Chapter Ten

There's a point of view that one should only read a book once. After that, why read it again, you know what happened.

Truthfully, for some books, most even, that's definitely the case. But for me, there's certain books I read over and over again over the years. Not to find out what happened, but to experience the book again. And to take away something new from it. The best books don't give up all they have of value on the first read. I mentioned a few posts back 1984 is a book I tend to read once a year or so. 'Salem's Lot is another book that finds its way to me multiple times.

Set in the then-contemporary early 1970's, 'Salem's Lot is the story of a vampire infestation of a small Maine town. But it's more than that. King brings the town of 'Salem's Lot to life for us. We get to know its inhabitants and its visitors, to care for them and to hate them. The somewhat crooked real estate agent and politician. The compassionate yet alcoholic Catholic priest. The writer returning to the only real hometown he ever knew, attempting to banish demons in his past. The high school dropout mom who abuses her son. The wise teacher. The young adult daughter seeking independence from loving but overbearing mother.

Once we get to know the town, King then allows the vampires loose. In the introduction to more recent printings of the novel King explains that he fully intended for the vampires to have a complete victory. Yet the protagonists he created refused to give up. And while many (if not most) of them die, they do not go easily and they never give in. While it would be difficult to say the novel ends happily, it does not end with the outright vampire victory King had planned. (Hopefully I've been vague enoug for those yet to experience this work.)

I'd not label the novel as perfection. The vampire "lifecycle" King creates is one that rapidly creates a scorched Earth, with people slain by vampires all coming back as vampires. It's difficult to see how vampires could sustain themselves in such a way - unless of course one assumes the bulk of new vampires don't last particularly long. There's also a few tropes common to Stephen King works that might drive one a little bonkers. For example, one of the protagonists, Susan Norton, finds herself in conflict with her mother in a way that bears more than a little resemblance to Susan Delgago's conflict with her aunt in Wizard and Glass. Ben Mears is one of many writer protagonists that King will create. Single 60-something teacher Ed Burke would get along rather well with single 60-something caretaker John Cullum in The Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower

Am I suggesting it's a bad book? Not even close. Truthfully, it's one of my favorite novels and one I've read a number of times. I'm getting an itch to read again right now as the days continue to grow shorter, the leaves begin to fall, and Halloween approaches. More importantly, I'd like to make the acquaintance of the inhabitants of the Lot again.

I like the way King himself says he thinks his mom would have described the novel:
The woman who brought me Dracula from the Stratford Public Library never saw ’Salem’s Lot. By the time the first draft was completed, she was too ill to read much—she who read with such enjoyment over the course of her life—and by the time it was published, she was dead. If she had read it, I like to think she would have finished the last hundred pages in one of her marathon chain-smoking readathons, then laughed, put it aside (not without some affection), and pronounced it trash. 
But maybe not bad trash.   

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Getting a Feel for London 1889

My initial Penny Dreadful Cthulhu game was postponed by a week - I had to do some unexpected repair work on our front yard zombies, taking up time I'd planned on doing homework. Real world can be a bit rough sometimes... But hey - check out zombies at the end of this post.While the first game has been delayed a week I do have the first adventure ready - though I might do a bit of refining, map-making, etc.

I do have to confess I find Victorian London to be a bit challenging. None of us are British so there's going to be no one going after me on details, but one thing I find intimidating is there is so much information available on Victorian London it is possible to fall victim to analysis paralysis. Part of the challenge is London is a real city that I don't know all that well - I've only been there once so I don't have an intuitive feel for it. When making a superhero city or a game set in a fictional city, I feel a bit more emboldened to make it my own. The odd thing is London in a Gaslight-era Pulp Cthulhu game is most certainly a fictional city in many ways.

What am I doing to combat this? First, I am accepting I'm not going to get everything right. I'll have a train stopping at a time when none would stop, a policeman doing something he wouldn't do etc. At the end of the day, I'll need to live with it. I'm also planning on having the occasional jaunt to New York City. I've been fascinated for several years by Gilded Age New York City and, while not living in the City, once once upon a time a Brooklyn Boy of PS 206.

However, I have been doing some reading and viewing to help me get that Victorian London feel. In no particular order:

  • From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Gritty look at the lives of Jack the Ripper's victims. I really enjoy how they became real people, not just statistics.
  • Ripper Street - British television show about police in the Whitechapel area. 
  • The Great Stink by Clare Clark. Novel taking place as the sewers of London are improved so they stop dumping sewage right in the Thames. Nice look at lower and middle class people in the era, including a tosher (a sewer scavenger) and a veteran of the Crimean War suffering from PTSD. Thirty years before our era, but still a great book for capturing the feel.
  • The Proud Tower by Barbara Tuchman. Not focused on London or even the UK, but rather an overview of the world from 1890 to 1914 in the form of numerous essays around various themes. Nice way to get a feel for many of the issues of the period.
  • Baedeker's London and Its Environs, 1900. Clearly a touch after our period but still great resource in providing a contemporary tourist guide to the city. It was a little easier on my eyes a few years ago before I needed bifocals/progressive lenses... 
  • Dickens Dictionary of London 1888 - Written by Charles Dicken's son, perfect for our era. An odd treasure trove on the city, though another work a little tough on aging eyes...
  • Lots of map reprints from the era.

And now, the front yard zombie crew:

Friday, October 7, 2016

Fiction Review: From Hell

"One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the twentieth century."

From Hell is a graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Eddie Campbell. It concerns itself with the murders committed by Jack the Ripper in the late Victorian era.

The story is not a mystery - we are privy who the murderer is from the very start. It is William Gull, physician. There is a theory that Gull was indeed the murderer, though it is not one that Moore says he found credible - he did, however, find it made for an interesting story.

In the story, Prince Albert Victor ("Prince Eddy") secretly marries Annie Cook, a shop girl. She has a child by him. Needless to say, when his grandmother, Queen Victoria, finds out about this, she is not amused. To stop her from talking, William Gull effectively lobotomizes her. However, her friend, Mary Kelly, already knows of the royal baby and she and her friends, all prostitutes, attempt to blackmail the royal family, Which sends William Gull after them.

What happens in From Hell is disturbing to say the least. Moore and Campbell do not shy away from graphic depictions of the brutal murders. Gull is quite likely insane, filled with a loathing for women and allowing his quest to take on mystical overtones. It is a grand conspiracy as well, with Gull taking advantage of his position as a Freemason to complete his gruesome mission.

While a difficult read, it is also a very engaging one. Victorian London comes to life under Moore and Campbell. More importantly, the people do as well - especially Gull's victims, each of whom has her own background, dreams, pains, etc. These were real people murdered, not disposable sex workers, something Moore forces us to reveal.

From Hell is a difficult read and does not yield its secrets in a single reading. Especially when read with Moore's appendix which fills us in on all the details he incorporated.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Controlling the Past

"Who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past."

-George Orwell, 1984

1984 is on my list of favorite books. It's possibly my all-time favorite. If you've not read it, it's hard for a summary to do it justice. I'm not sure of the original source of this, but I've heard many times online people state that North Korea is a country that could be described as someone reading 1984 and deciding that's the perfect model for their country.

Every year or so I read 1984 again. And every reading I appreciate it again, in different ways. Sometimes I take notice of how well constructed the novel is. Sometimes I notice how astute some political observation is. Sometimes I'm amazed how well he imagined the future.

One of the ideas behind the novel is the control of the past. Big Brother, the near-mythical leader of Oceania, is never wrong. If some news story in the past shows him to have been in error, it is the story that is in error. An error that is rectified. Winston Smith, the novel's protagonist, is employed at the Ministry of Truth, where such "corrections" are made. The Party is never wrong either - after all, Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party. In one chapter, Winston Smith makes corrections to previous news stories - changing figures and predictions for the most part, but also totally rewriting a story where Big Brother praised an unperson to be a story praising someone Winston created as a total fabrication.

After corrections are made, all old copies are destroyed and replaced with the new versions, without ever an indication that anything was ever changed.

What occurred to me is how easy this is to do today. How, for example, do you know the truth of any news story? Consider the following meme...

My 14-year old daughter quoted this very story to me yesterday. The problem with it, as can be ascertained by fact-checking sites, is that it is simply not true. 

However, consider what could be done by a diligent retroactive editor. Take a more recent magazine, one that is online only. What if its publishers were willing to retroactively edit its past issues to better fit a current agenda? How could you ptove what is true and untrue? If only one or two online publications were to do that, fact-checking is reasonable. But what if redefining the past becomes a type of arms' race? Thousands of publications all adjusting their archives to fit their current agendas? Or worse, what if they were all united in preserving the same agenda? How could you prove anything happened or anyone existed? How could you prove something as straight-forward as the identity of the first president of the United States or the first emperor of Rome? If every record indicated Mark Antony defeated Octavian, could you prove otherwise? How do we even know Octavian triumphed?