Saturday, July 28, 2012

James P. Blaylock: Fantasy & Steampunk Novelist

Often times writing (and for you guys reading) this blog feels like I'm taking a car trip on a winding mountain road at night in the rain with only one working headlight and windshield wipers that scratch across the glass more than they wipe it clear. I'm not sure that that all means, other than some nights I feel rather nostalgic for the good old days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when gaming, computers, fantasy, and science fiction held a magical grip on my young imagination.

So where is this road leading me tonight? How about to one of my favorite fantasy and science fiction writers at the time, James P. Blaylock? Perhaps you've heard of him, though odds on you haven't. His first novel was The Elfin Ship in 1982, followed by The Disappearing Dwarf in 1983, which I accidentally read prior to reading The Elfin Ship! These were part of what would become his Elfin series of four novels. He wrote other novels as well, eventually being influenced by the emerging steampunk movement of the time, and he continues to write today.

Blaylock writes in a very off-beat, light-hearted manner, heavily influenced by 19th century British and American literature with a twist of Monty Python tossed in. Very odd and humorous, with numerous literary references and word-plays. We'd classify his style as "magic realism," placing him among writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, who wrote the novel 100 Years of Solitude. Blaylock's quirky humor has always fit my quirky sense of humor.

Of course, I knew practically nothing about that literary stuff at the time. I was just a young adult/kid working in my dad's store. I wouldn't become a literature major for a few more years. Still, I always had an interest in Victorian science fiction from reading Wells and Verne. Later, I would go on to specialize in 19th century British and American literature.

You can find most of Blaylock's works on the Nook for $10 each, though finding paperbacks seems to be easy enough as well. I've listed most of the Blaylock novels below that I've read. I stopped reading him after 1986, mainly because I had too much else to read as a literature major and he had worn thin for me. Homunculus, for example, juggles more characters and plot threads than Blaylock can really handle well. But his early novels are a breezy read. If you like Victorian science fiction with a twist of fantasy, check out James P. Blaylock, one of my favorite imaginative writers from the early 1980s.

The Elfin Ship (1982)

Trading with the elves used to be so simple. Every year Master Cheeser Jonathan Bing would send his very best cheeses downriver to traders who would eventually return with Elfin wonders for the people of Twombly Town.

But no more...

First, the trading post at Willowood Station was mysteriously destroyed. Then a magical elfin airship began making forays overhead: Jonathan knew something was definitely amiss.

So he set off downriver to deliver the cheeses himself, accompanied by the amazing Professor Wurzle, the irrepressible Dooly, and his faithful dog Ahab. It would have been such a pleasant trip, if not for the weeping skeleton, mad goblins, magic coins, an evil dwarf, a cloak of invisibility - and a watch that stopped time.

Of course, the return trip was not so simple...

The Disappearing Dwarf (1983)

Jonathan Bing, Master Cheeser, has been growing a bit bored in Twombly Town. So it’s no surprise that when Professor Wurzle suggests a trip downriver, Jonathan jumps at the chance. A visit to the Evil Dwarf Selznak’s abandoned castle leads to a treasure hunt, but also to the discovery that Jonathan’s old friend the Squire has vanished, and that Selznak may be involved.

Jonathan--accompanied by his wonderpooch Ahab, the Professor, and Miles the Magician--will have to set off to darkest Balumnia, to the city of Landsend, to find the treasure, and the Squire. And to make matters worse, Selznak will be there, too...

The Digging Leviathan (1984)

Southern California - sunny days, blue skies, neighbours on flying bicycles ... ghostly submarines ... mermen off the Catalina coast ... and a vast underground sea stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Inland Empire where Chinese junks ply an illicit trade and enormous creatures from ages past still survive. It is a place of wonder ... and dark conspiracies. A place rife with adventure - if one knows where to look for it. Two such seekers are the teenagers Jim Hastings and his friend, Giles Peach. Giles was born with a wonderful set of gills along his neck and insatiable appetite for reading. Drawing inspiration from the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Giles is determined to build a Digging Leviathan. Will he reach the center of the earth? or destroy it in the process?

Homunculus (1986)

In 1870s London, a city of contradictions and improbabilities, a dead man pilots an airship and living men are willing to risk all to steal a carp. Here, a night of bangers and ale at the local pub can result in an eternity at the Blood Pudding with the rest of the reanimated dead.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Space: The Bane of Every 28mm Miniature Gamer

This weekend, during a phone chat with a League member (aka my best buddy), he dropped a bomb on me. He had suddenly abandoned his years of 18mm Napoleonics in favor of 28mm, buying several boxes of Perry plastic French and Russian figures for new armies using the Black Powder rules and maybe a bit of skirmishing. IIRC the reasoning was that these 28mm plastics were cheaper than buying the 18mm AB figures he needed to complete his armies, plus he was tired of 18mm in general (long story there, I guess).

Ok, I can dig that. Money is always an issue with army gaming. But all we have are two folding tables for 5'x6' of space, the same tables on which we played our game of The Sword & The Flame last year. I really had my doubts about what type of game we would have, other than line up and move forward into the parking lot in the middle. This had been my only 28mm Napoleonic experience many years ago, and those guys used 15'x6' worth of tables and the CLS rules. Those are not pleasant memories.

Back to the present, he thought we could use 24-man battalions. Each brigade would have two battalions, with maybe two brigades, an artillery battery, and a cavalry battalion per side. Well, in Black Powder that probably would be a short and not very fun game. From what I know, we would really need at least three battalions of infantry per brigade. Two brigades might work ok, though there could be pitfalls. I'd prefer three. No way would we use brigade morale rules--that could be a very short game with small armies!

Still, we only have a 5'x6' table. I kept seeing a game looking like I4 during rush hour.

We also discussed basing sizes for 28mm, along with how to handle BP's various column formations. We seemed to settle into either 40mmX40mm or 60mmX40mm bases for the 24-man infantry battalions. I have come to really dislike moving lots of fiddly bases and having bits of figures sticking out beyond their bases, only to have those bits bend or break while poking my fingers.

In the end, I decided to make some paper counters that we could toss onto the table and play some test games with. We could then experiment with various base sizes without affecting the real miniatures. After all, many years ago I used to be the king of Warmaster Fantasy counters; Rick Preistly even thanked me for making them back in the day.

The photos below are the fruits of my efforts. Not being an artist, I took the line drawings from another game's counters and resized them for 28mm gaming. On Monday, I printed only the 60mmX40mm infantry counters, not the smaller 40mmX40mm counters. Cavalry is based for 75mmX50mm. Artillery is 60mmX60mm. Command uses 60mmX40mm and 60mmX60mm for the general. Not having any 28mm artillery, I kind of guessed and went by what I read in the book. I only now realized that I could have used my 28mm Western horses to see how the cavalry bases worked out (smacks head!) instead of guessing. Ah well.

On Monday, I set up the tables and tossed down the counters just to see how much space units take up in various formations. I also placed my 15mm Napoleon's Battles counters along side the 28mm just for my own comparison, especially since I'm very poor at visually measuring distance and figuring out spacial relationships. (Never ask me if the contents of Bowl A will fit in Bowl B unless it's totally obvious! Plus, I refuse to play any game where I cannot pre-measure distances! But I digress...)

The photos tell the story. Obviously, a 15mm brigade always takes half the space of a 28mm brigade. So playing a 28mm game on a 5'x6' table would be like playing a 15mm game on a 2.5'x3' table. There won't be much room for maneuvering. I'm sure we could be a bit more creative in deploying brigades and creating scenarios, but still I think more space is needed to avoid simply marching forward. But maybe this is what many 28mm Napoleonic gamers are used to doing? I don't know. Still, I doubt I'll be running out any time soon to start a 28mm Prussian army.

Now 5'x6' would work with 28mm Sharp Practice, which I bought during the last TLF sale. I wouldn't mind painting up some 28mm small units for that game, which being skirmish is more my speed anyway. But that is another topic for another day.