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Friday
Jan082010

Daring Heroics, Dastardly Deeds, & Space Rock

How’s this for nerdiness: as an undergrad, I took a literature class called Icelandic Saga. It was a great, memorable experience.  My classmates were all into it, especially the connections with fantasy lit.  My college mentor was even teaching.  Yeah, all four of us had a blast. 

Anywho . . . speaking of sagas, just read a good one:  THE SAGA OF HAWKWIND.

Don’t know the Hawklords?  And you call yourselves nerds.  Okay, here’s a brief summary of the Sparknote version of the Cliffnote version of why one of the world’s most under-rated bands should be discussed on Nerdbloggers.  Since its inception, Hawkwind has delivered some the most innovative and compelling space rock known to man.  Their live album Space Ritual captures the early glory.  (And yes, that is Lemmy from Motorhead on bass.)  Hall of the Mountain Grill and The Warrior on the Edge of Time are other highlights.  Contributing to, and occasionally performing with, the band is none other than the master of science-fantasy literature: Michael Moorcock.  The album Doremi Falso Latido is based upon Moorcock’s novel The Black Corridor.  And then there’s the ultimate treat of The Chronicle of the Black Sword which, of course, is based upon Moorcock’s Elric Saga.  I would say that it just doesn’t get better than that, but it does.  There’s the recording of the Black Sword tour – Live Chronicles – which may be one of the best live albums ever recorded.  They based songs upon works all of the great speculative writers ranging from Asimov (I Robot) to Zelazny (Damnation Alley).  I could go on and on and on, but you get the idea.  The Hawks (well, Dave Brock and current friends) are still churning out good stuff to this day.  Their thirty-plus-years story is truly a saga.  And that’s what Carol Clerk presents in The Saga of Hawkwind (Omnibus Press 2004).

From what I remember from my class, a saga usually preserves the tales of great deeds from the past.  Clerk’s chronicle follows Hawkwind from before its earliest inception.  She follows Dave Brock and company as they struggle across 1950’s and 60’s Britain and Europe performing blues, busking, and jazz.  They’re lots of interesting rock history along the way.  For example, I’ve been listened to Hawkwind for over twenty years but never knew of the meeting between Brock and Eric Clapton, when Brock showed Clapton how to play some chords.  Or that Jimi Hendrix watched Hawkwind’s legendary free performance at the Isle of Wight and later dedicated a song to Nik Turner – that silver guy – when he did his set.  The book is filled with juicy little bits like that.  Clerk devotes a chapter to every historical step Hawkwind ever took.  At over thirty lengthy chapters, that should give you an idea of the history in there. 

One thing I admired about the book was also something that bothered me at times.  Clerk’s objectivity cannot be disputed.  Right from page one, she informs you that the history of the band is complex and often conflicting.  The same story is remembered differently by different band members or observers; sometimes stories about certain members are remembered by some while vehemently denied by others.  The bothersome part, however, is that the book is all about the infighting and disputes, petty and profound, that occurred within the band.  Ultimately, Brock, who is one of the mythic legends looming large within the pantheon of my all-time favorites, is given a chaptered titled “God, Satan, or Just Captain of the Ship.”  It was troubling at times to read but revelatory.  It reminded me that all artists are essentially human.  In fact it is that struggle that can distinguish between the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The history of Hawkwind definitely trudges through all three.

The Saga of Hawkwind is a hefty tome.  The hardback copy I own is over five hundred pages.  I bought the Kindle version which, however, has been updated and expanded and is even longer!  If I had a quibble with the book, this would be it.  You are sometimes reminded of the daunting size of the book.  Like the sagas of days gone by, Clerk focuses on genealogy.  She has constructed a lineage of the band and its connections to others bands and provided a history of every member who has served with the band from their birth till their joining.  While this is not a problem necessarily with the key figures, it does interrupt the narrative when your reading about the problems of a certain tour then, right in the middle, break to read about who so-and-so is, where he was born, went to school, and what bands he worked with before finally meeting Hawkwind.  Sometimes the book is too comprehensive.

Aside from their speculative fiction leanings, Clerk reveals the role this band played in the development of punk (Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols was a huge Hawkwind fan) and dance music.  The volume is filled with stories of the heroic and the petty, and that honesty keeps the story real and relevant.  There’re also great photos throughout the band’s long, varied history.  Despite its flaws, which are few, The Saga of Hawkwind is a straight-forward, interesting look at an important, over-looked band. 

Wednesday
Jan062010

Review of Word on the Street

 

 

 

Word on the Street

 

Out of the Box Publishing

 

MSRP: 24.99 USD                                                        

 

Available for around $20 through online retailers

 

 

The Spin: “The Hilarious Tug of Words”

 

 

The Story: Word on the Street is a simple word game played on a board that is shaped like a long, narrow street and divided into squares. Letter tiles are placed down the center column of the board. Throughout the course of the game, players will say and spell words based on cards that are drawn and pull the letters in the words toward their side of the street. A team wins when they have pulled eight letter tiles off their side of the board.

 

The Play: The brief description of the game above almost covers the entirety of the game. Players divide into two teams and choose to play with the easy or difficult cards. The cards have conditions on them that the players will use to generate a single (though not necessarily singular) word. For instance, the card might say “Method Actor.” The team whose turn it was would have thirty seconds to decide on an actor, say it, and spell it while moving the letters in the name one square per time used toward their side of the board. In the above example, the team might say “Brando” and move the B, R, N, and D toward their side of the board (vowels and some other letters are not on the board from the start).

 

Players must spell the word correctly and both the spelling and the appropriateness of the word can be challenged by the other team. We play the spelling rule pretty loosely and only penalize the team if the misspelling helped them, not if it hurt them (not sure how nice we are being there).

 

Proper nouns are allowed assuming they are appropriate for the card, as above, and all English words including plurals and hyphenated words are allowed. This is far less strict than many word games and we appreciated the looser feel.

 

The combination of simple game play and the 30-second timer make the game fast-paced and sometimes a bit hectic.

 

My Take: I really enjoyed Word on the Street. I played it with both our regular groups and with some students from one of my courses and it went over well with every group. As I left the last game session, one of the players said “you need to give Word on the Street” a good review. Well, here it is. The game is quick and fun. It is simple and easy to explain which means it works well with casual gamers and new gamers.

 

My only complaint is one I've mostly had with trivia games over the years. Some of the cards are too wide open, meaning way too many words would work. The one that came up in our first game was “Name of a Street or Boulevard.” I'm not sure what word the other team could have said that could not have been justified. It reminded me of the Planet Hollywood trivia game where players went back and forth naming actors or movies that matched specific cards. When the card said “John Ford Films” or something, the game worked great and rewarded the players with the most knowledge. When it said “beautiful actress,” it bombed because a team could justify any answer: “Well, I think Whoopi Goldberg is stunning!” Luckily, not too many similar cards have come up since that first game and it is really only a problem when one team lucks into a majority of the wide open cards.

 

That small complaint aside, I have no trouble recommending Word on the Street to our readers. The back and forth action on the board feels fresh and unique, and I expect the game will be played at our house for many years to come.

 

Components: I'm rarely unhappy with the components from Out of the Box. Word on the Street is no exception. The tiles are heavy and have a great tactile presence. The board is attractive. The cards are good, not great, quality, but considering that they don't get handled or shuffled often, they should last through many plays.

 

Score: 4 out of 5

 

Pros: Easy to teach, good for a variety of groups, attractive on the table

 

Cons: Some unbalance cards

Monday
Jan042010

Sailing the Aether with Abney Park

I’m biased. I love music with a science fiction and fantasy slant. To be honest, that’s what first drew me to Abney Park. I saw them at DragonCon in 2008 where the program described them as a steampunk band. (Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction that hearkens back to the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells in terms of setting, technology, and tone.) I became a fan the moment I listened to Lost Horizons.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Jan042010

Review of Kachina 

The Story: Kachina is a tile-laying game loosely themed around the idea of battling Hopi spirits. Players take turns playing tiles to the board that represent various spirits. All of these have numbers that represent the strength of the tile while some also have special powers. The central idea is to place a tile so that it is the dominant spirit in a row or column. If the player manages to do this, he or she gets points equal to the number of tiles in the row or column.

Click to read more ...

Friday
Sep252009

Con (A Tale of DragonCon Past)

I didn’t exactly lie.  I just let them believe what they wanted to believe. 

So, according to my esteemed colleagues, I missed work that Thursday and Friday (years and years ago) to drive all the way to Atlanta, GA, to meet the great American writer Ray Bradbury.

Sure Bradbury wrote science fiction, sure he wrote fantasy, sure he wrote horror – but that didn’t matter.  You see, Bradbury had reached that iconic status where he was actually taught in classrooms.  Pick up sophomore or junior high school textbook, and you will more than likely find a Bradbury story.  In the mainstream American mind, he had made it.  Never mind that he was good.  He was important.  He was a success.

So off I went.

Maybe I should have explained it more thoroughly.  Maybe.  I just couldn’t quite imagine something called Dragon*Con to be the ivory tower affair they did.    Don’t get me wrong – I have enjoyed and admired Bradbury’s work since, well, high school I guess, but I had made arrangements to attend the con well before he was announced as one of the guests of honor.  When folks asked why I was driving approximately eight hundred miles there and back, however, Bradbury’s name seemed to satisfy their curiosity.  I suppose he made the trip legitimate in their eyes, especially for a high school English teacher.

Dragon*Con is a what you would call a science fiction convention – a con in fanboy lingo –  but it is so much more.  It is annual gathering of the best and the brightest among the science fiction, fantasy, and horror community.  The guest list spans across every form of media: print, film, music, internet, games.  If it’s genre related, chances are it’s there somewhere.  Me and Craig, a friend and fellow fanboy since high school, went every year and have rubbed elbows with the likes of David Prowse (who was the man inside Darth Vader’s suit in Star Wars), Brinke Stevens (who screamed mightily in films like Nightmare Sisters and Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity), Stan “the Man” Lee (who created Marvel Comics, along with the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and such), and Jefferson Starship (yeah, the rock band, who were actually nominated for a science fiction award for their first album, Blows Against the Empire). 

Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled Bradbury was coming this year.  Giddy as a fanboy could be.  He was scheduled to head a special seminar that Saturday, which was to be followed by a special autograph session, so I carefully packed away my copy of The Martian Chronicles.  The smooth, worn cover flaked slightly around the edges, and the well-read pages had browned somewhat.  I could have gotten a better copy, sure, but we had a history together.  I can fondly remember sneaking it into English classes when we were supposed to be reading whatever it was we were supposed to be reading.  I’m pretty sure the teacher knew, too, but she never confiscated it.  I think she was just happy to see somebody actually reading.

Saturday arrived.  To kill time, Craig and I wandered around the dealer’s room, amazed by some of the things we saw.  It was just like out of the pages of a monster magazine or comic book.  We counted ten brooding vampires, nine different anime characters, eight barbarians, seven “dark” fairies, six flocks of Goths, five demonic beings, four aliens, three musketeers, two mad scientists, and one thing that we couldn’t quite classify.  The fans that didn’t dress up usually wore dark colors and/or t-shirts advertising their favorite TV show or movie or displaying some saying that they, at least, found amusing.

Overall, it was a festive occasion.

The dealer’s room was quite nice.  It was like being in a maze of memories you could buy, sell, or trade.  Every book, toy, and game I had ever owned or had ever wanted to own was right there.  I laughed, I cringed, I spent much cash.

Overall, it was a festive occasion.

For me anyway.

Unfortunately, Craig’s fanboyness was not up to par.  He started to crack under the pressure of all the fandom and general weirdness surrounding us.

“Freaks,” he shouted from the balcony overlooking the dealer’s room where we had perched to patiently await the coming of Bradbury.  “Freaks.  You’re all freaks!”

I guess the proper analogy to fully illustrate the irony of Craig’s sudden declaration lies in the 1956 Vincent Price film The Last Man on Earth.  In that film (based on the even better Richard Matheson novel I am Legend), a plague transforms the human race into vampires.  The Price character stakes vampires during the day and struggles to survive by night.  Among the vampire community, however, Price has become the monster, and in the final agonizing scene, he dies shouting, “Freaks!  You’re all freaks!” oblivious to the obvious irony.  I, therefore, did not point out that our pocket-tees and blue jeans were as subtle as the first gross and gooey mutating appearance of the Thing in Carpenter’s classic remake.

Anyway, that’s when I saw him down in the dealer’s room.

The orange Hawaiian shirt flashing from beneath his striped polyester jacket was the first thing I noticed.  Then the bright, white pants.  How odd, I thought, odd being a relative term, of course.  Then I saw the man wearing it: sixtyish, balding, thick glasses, ear-to-ear grin.  It was him!  The one and the only.  That’s right, I was staring down upon the grandeur and greatness that was Forrest J Ackerman.

Forrey was, is, and will be the archetypal fanboy.  He has the largest science fiction, fantasy, and horror collection in the world.  People travel from all over the world to visit and tour his home.  Filmmakers have asked him to do cameos in their works, he has edited and published some of the biggest genre names, Bradbury included, and he created and published one of the most famous and influential genre magazines ever:  Famous Monsters of Filmland.

I had read Famous Monsters as a teenager in my insulated hometown to find out all kinds of neat stuff about sf, fantasy, and horror films.  My friends and I loved it, couldn’t get enough of it, but most importantly, most adults hated.  I remember my ENG III teacher peering over her winged-tipped glasses while confiscating copies and chastising us for being “rude, crude, and socially unrefined.”

I don’t know how conscious I was of the connections ticking off in my mind at the moment, but I did realize I was standing in a hall full of people staring at a strangely dressed old man like a teenage girl gawking over a rock star.  But I didn’t care – it was Forrest J Ackerman!  Craig and I even followed him for a while.  I think we tried every way possible to convince ourselves it wasn’t him, but the truth could not be denied.  Here, indeed, was the man, the myth, the legend.

We finally managed to calm down enough to introduce ourselves.  I honestly couldn’t tell you what I had imagined talking to the Ackerman would be like back in high school, but I’m sure it met every expectation then went way beyond them.  Basically, he was a lot like any fan.  The three of us spent the entire afternoon wandering around the dealer’s room looking around and talking fan stuff.  And he could come up with some of the greatest – worst? – puns I’d ever heard.  

He had a story to tell about any old toy he touched.  Just by watching him, you knew he was seeing everything he told you; it was almost like out of a story, like he had the power to actually look back in time to when science fiction had just begun to flourish.  He told us how it was more vibrant back then, more alive.  Yeah, the stories weren’t scientifically accurate and the films didn’t have the best special effects, but the stories were – well, there’s no better way to say it – good.  Writers didn’t need brooding heroes that weren’t heroic, and filmmakers didn’t need CGI to create gianormous explosions.  The stories were good.  They made fans want to know what happened next; they had genuine emotion.  I had gotten a glimpse of it by watching the old movies and reading the classics, but here was a man – THE man – who had lived it, even helped shape it.  Fandom would not be what it is today without him.  Science fiction and fantasy would not be what it is today without him.

I missed Bradbury that con, so in honor of Mr. Ackerman, I guess I should say that’s my con-fession.

I heard Bradbury’s panel was great.  He delighted and dazzled the audience.  I watched highlights on the souvenir video I got.  I didn’t get my copy of The Martian Chronicles signed either.  Much to the astonishment of my colleagues, I wasn’t disappointed.  And they didn’t seem to care too much about Forrest Ackerman either.  The kids in my junior English class got a big kick out of it, though.   

Of course, they were all rude, crude, and socially unrefined.