Monday, July 27, 2020

Gen Con 1994

So, thanks to Tech Support (thanks Janice), here are the two scans I'd had trouble with earlier. The second has the write-ups of the two panels, while the first lists all the TSR rpg sponsored seminars. I find this one a good indicator of just how many different things we were working on at any given time.


--John R.

"Women, Minorities, & the Game"

So, something else that emerged from my recent sorting through a box of papers relating to the 1994 GenCo is a list (see below) of all the panels TSR staff took part in that year at GenCon in Milwaukee at MECCA and the official description of the two I organized and chaired.

Some other time I'll try to tell the story of our attempt within the department to make TSR's rpgs more appealing to women and minorities. For now I'll just say that for me it culminated in a panel at GenCon with myself as moderater and Mike Pondsmith, Lisa Pondsmith, Lawrence Sims, and a fifth person whose name escapes me* as the panelists. Unfortunately I'm having some trouble with the scanner so here's its official description:

"Women, Minorities, & Games"
What's the role of women and minorities in a hobby dominated by "pale males"? Come and join the lively debate over how to make role-playing games more appealing to these groups.

I don't remember after this many years what points came up in the discussion that followed, other than that I probably opened by sharing my belief that the obvious place to start to make our game more appealing to women and minorities was to remove elements they wd find off-putting.

As for the other panel, it's clearly a precursor of my later CLASSICS OF FANTASY column (2002-2004). At about this same time I did a recommended reading list for the MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH spin-off of the RAVENLOFT setting; this appeared in POLYHEDRON in I think October 1994.

--John R.

--current reading: THE WORLDS OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN by John Garth

*it would have been Lisa Steele from White Rose publishing except that she didn't come to GenCon that year.

TSR GenCon 1994: The Crack-Up List (update)

So, a week or two ago I posted a fun little piece I'd come across during some sorting. But I'd meant to do a follow-up piece, giving the second listing that carried on the joke. So here is the original crack-up list with the follow-up, for those who like such things:

--John R.
current reading: BUNNIES & BURROWS (first edition, 1976)

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Heyerdahl May Have Been Right

So, it's decades ago that Thor Heyerdahl came up with his theory that Native Americans of the Pacific coast had the boating technology and skill to reach Polynesia. He even built a replica boat (in this case, a balsawood raft, the Kon Tiki) and sailed it from Peru to Tahiti, as a feasibility test. His work was widely popular but dismissed as pseudoscience; I've always considered him one of the great champions undermining what Lewis and Barfield came to call 'chronological snobbery'.

Now some new research in the form of genetic testing suggests that there was contact, but how much is unclear. The Polynesians certainly had the technology to sail just about anywhere in the Pacific

--cf THE PREHISTORIC EXPLORATION AND COLONISATION OF THE PACIFIC by Geoffrey Irwin (1992; highly recommended)--

while for the Americas' side of the story, about which I know far less,  certainly the Makah and other whale-hunters of the Pacific Northwest had command of large, powerful boats

-- I have Heyerdahl's massive tome AMERICAN INDIANS IN THE PACIFIC (1953) but have not read it.

In any case, somebody took the sweet potato from South America to spread it across the Pacific, which is pretty good proof of more than casual contact.

Here's the link to the recent article.

Tolkien trivia fact: Tolkien's secretary, Joy Hill, was a friend of Heyerdahl's and had a model of one of his boats he'd given her (I forget whether it was the Tigris or the Ra) on her mantlepiece

--John R.

P.S.: While we're on the theme of conventional wisdoms showing a few cracks, the late date (12,000 to 14,000 yrs ago) for humans arriving in the Western Hemisphere becomes more Ptolemaic all the time:

Monday, July 20, 2020

I Am Podcast (Longwinded One)

So, a while back I was asked to appear in a podcast for a Tolkien/gaming site, which seemed an ideal blending of two of my major interests. We recorded the interview and here's the result. Enjoy.

--John R.
--current rereading; WATERSHIP DOWN (first read circa 1974 and reread many times since)

Saturday, July 18, 2020

A Primary coming up

So, yesterday our primary ballots arrived for the state election, the most eye-catching element of which is the long list of thirty-six people running for governor. Unfortunately it did not come with the usual voter's pamphlet giving us a brief self-pitch by each candidate, which is usually a good way to sort out the serious candidates from the crazies.

There are two basic ways to deal with managing this unwieldy situation.

Option #1:
—the current governor is doing a pretty good job. Let him carry on doing what he's doing for another four years.

Option #2:
--sort out all the candidates by political party, weed out the weird ones, then check out the online version of the Voter's Pamphlet to learn more about the serious candidates.

Here's my initial sort-out

First off, there are fringe parties, some of which may not actually exist outside the head of the person running: the Stand Up America party, the Propertarianist party, the American Patriot party, the Fifth Republic party, the Cascadia Labour party, the New-Liberty party.

Then there are genuine minor parties who have no hope of winning but want to promote their cause: the Socialist Workers party, the Green party.

Somewhat confusingly, in the non-of the above category we have two "Independent", one "Unaffiliated", and four "No Party". Are these just different ways to say the same thing?

Where things really run off the rails is with the Republican parties (sic). There are fifteen people running as "Republican", three of whom are running as "Trump Republican" and one as "2016 Republican".  I've never seen such chaos on a ballot.

Finally for the Democrats things are nice and simple: five people running, one of which (Gov. Inslee) is all but certain to win.

At any rate this is one election in which 'they're all the same' just isn't a credible response.

--John R.

Update on Amazon (US & UK)

So, here's the happy ending: I had the Garth book before three o'clock the day after I ordered it. I've given it a quick skim; I'm sure I'll post about various odds and end that come up as I read it.

And to give them due credit, the UK amazon processed the cancellation right away, so that's all taken care of as well.

And if that weren't good news enough, the long-awaited packet of my current favorite Yunnan and Keemun finally reached me as well.

And now it's back to reading a slim volume of George Sterling (as a precursor to Clark Ashton Smith) and continuing on WATERSHIP DOWN. In token of which it felt entirely appropriate that on yesterday's walk from here to the local wetlands and back I saw seven rabbits on the way out and twelve on the way back, aa new record.

--John R.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Dunsany's Leaves (Vaninskaya on Dunsany)

So, recently I've been reading the Dunsany section of Anna Vaninskaya's new book on Dunsany, Eddison, and Tolkien. It's rare to find really good criticism of Dunsany, so thought I'd share my critique.

Anna Vaninskaya's Fantasies of Time and Death: Dunsany, Eddison, Tolkien (Palgrave, 2020) is particularly welcome in that while there are hundreds of books on Tolkien, we only have a half-dozen on Dunsany, and none at all on Eddison. This book in part redresses that imbalance. 

Vaninskaya asserts that modern fantasy "did not exist as a category in the British literary landscape, and the British authors under consideration did not know they were writing it." (.1). As she sees it, the genre was created by Ballantine as a 'fuzzy set' centered on Tolkien (.2): "[T]hese writers never constituted a school amongst themselves; each was independent and sui generis" (.3).  While she detects "the deep affinity of method and purpose amongst key early practitioners of the genre" (.8), she believes for most later fantasists, "Their main template was the quest romance rather than the creation myth" (.7). 

Following an exceptionally well-sourced chapter on Morris, MacDonald, and Mirrlees 
as precursors and contemporary dealing with the themes of death and time, she devotes the rest of the book to Dunsany, Eddison, and Tolkien, in that order.

Vaninskaya's critique of Dunsany is particularly welcome because unlike most previous Dunsany criticism she actually analyzes his work, rather than just summarize it (Schweitzer) or depict him as a sort of lesser Lovecraft (Joshi). She more than makes her case for the centrality of Death and Time as the unifying themes that recur again and again in Dunsany's tales, plays, and novels. In the process she also shows how this made him very much a man of his time, an heir to the Romantics (e.g. Shelly) and high Victorians (Swinbourne, Tennyson). She places particular emphasis on Personification, stating flatly that "It is impossible to overstate Dunsany's reliance on this device" (.27). He was "profoundly unoriginal" (.29) in his metaphors and symbolism, taking over traditional ones and making them his own, until by his persistence in repeating them they become central to what he has to say.

She finds this patterning essential to understanding Dunsany's work.

"while it wd not be true to say that once you have read one Dunsany tale, you have read them all—for the fecundity of his imagination was such that each . . . differed indelibly from the rest—it is true that his oeuvre resolves, in the final analysis, into a series of poetic variations on a single set of themes, images[,] and rhetorical devices (.24)

Her analogy is that of a tile-maker who crafts each individual tile by hand. Each resembles the rest but is unique unto itself.  For any Tolkienist it's a short hop from that to "LEAF: by Dunsany". Instead of Tolkien's tree we have in Dunsany no tree but a multitude of individual leaves, each lovingly crafted, each distinctive yet each recognizably Dunsanian. 

To conclude: 
This just may be the book on Dunsany Dunsany scholars have been waiting for.

The best thing about Vaninskaya on Dunsany is that she offers real insights into Dunsany's theme and method, including analysis of individual works, such as The King of Elfland's Daughter (45–51), Dunsany's most famous work, and The Blessings of Pan (51–55), the last of Dunsany's early novels. V's insights made me want to reread books I've not read for decades.

The worst is that there is not more of it (only forty-five pages out of a 262 page book). Obviously, this is a good problem to have. It's not that what we have feels truncated or incomplete. It's just that this is good enough that it leaves us wanting more.

—July 16th 2020 lets me down

So, today I finally gave up waiting for my copy of John Garth's book, THE WORLDS OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN, to arrive.

I'd pre-ordered this back in May of last year along with two other books (TOLKIEN'S CHAUCER and TOLKIEN'S LIBRARY), both of which arrived in due course.

By mid-May of this year I was hearing that folks were getting copies already, although its official release date was not until June 9th. About this time I got a notice that my copy had shipped and wd arrive on July 8. As usual they included a tracking number that enabled me to follow its progress all the way to the evening of July 8th, when the tracking system said "out for delivery".

Then something seemed to go wrong. The July 8th out-for-delivery notice disappeared and was replaced by one saying it wd arrive between July 8th and 15th. I kept checking the tracking number daily and was still getting notices that it was on the way as late as yesterday, the 15th.

Then today I find a message that "Your package may be lost" and offering me an option of getting a refund. Re-ordering is not an option since the book is, they said, out of stock. So I gave up on, cancelled the phantom shipment, and re-ordered the book this afternoon from their US cousins, They say it'll be here tomorrow.

What makes it worse is that this is twice now they've done this to me. When I'd last ordered the year's Tolkien calendar from them they provided me with a tracking number to trace the shipment's progress, only to discover on the day it wd have been delivered that it was a phantom shipment: as near as I cd make out it had never been shipped.

And the moral is: if you happen to live a mile or so from an amazon fulfillment center you might as well take advantage of it.

--John R.
--current reading: Vaninskaya on Dunsany, Lockley on Rabbits

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

TSR GenCon 1994: The Crack-Up List

So, the box I starting sorting through last week turned out to contain relics from GenCon 1994, the most interesting of which was the following table (posted in the Games Library)*
predicting which of TSR's designers and editors wd snap first from the strain of working on their current projects while at the same time getting everything ready for the panels and playtests they'd be doing at MECCA and all the madness that wd ensue. The two depicted as under the most pressure were Michele Carter (who annotated her own entry: "Sick, a Flint CD project, and GenCon--I'm much closer than 'even odds'") and Julia Martin ("Favorite in a crowded field"). The two voted most stable were Skip Williams ("Former RPGA--this looks like a vacation next to that") and Jon Pickens ("Chosen 'individual most likely to turn out the lights at TSR' for 5 years running"). I'm in there too ("It's always the quiet ones").

Quite aside from all the in-jokes, this is a nice listing off all the folks working on rpgs at the time, with two ringers: Carolyn Chambers, who was one of the Olympians (i.e. executives) with whom we had limited contact (their offices were in a different part of the building and we were encouraged not to go that way), and "Bud Moore", a blow-up life-sized doll, the subject of many tacky jokes.

--John R.
--current reading: a book on rabbits (fiction), a book on rabbits (fact), a book on Dunsany and Eddison and Tolkien, various other things.

*Since Zeb, who left in the first half of 1994, wasn't on the list, and Jeff Grubb, who left around January 1995, is, I'd figured out that this must be for GenCon 1994; I later found a note dating it to August 17th 1994 (a Wednesday).

On re-reading WATERSHIP DOWN

What I'm reading right now:
        --a book Le Guin hated.

What I'm not reading:
   John Garth's new book
        --because my copy has still not arrived.


--John R.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

FIfty Pence for a HOBBIT

So, here's a chipper little story about someone who buys a reading copy of THE HOBBIT in a charity shop  and finds it's a first printing first edition. With dust jacket.

--John R.

current reading: WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams, A WINE OF WIZARDRY by George Sterling, IN THE REALMS OF MYSTERY AND WONDER by Clark Ashton Smith (reproduces his paintings and carvings).

Friday, July 3, 2020

The Tolkien Society Seminar

So, I know where I'll be at 5.45 am tomorrow morning.

 I intend to get up far too early in order to take part in this year's Tolkien Society Seminar. I've only been able to attend this event once before, in May 1987, where Stephen Medcalf, Jessica Yates, Diana Wynne Jones, Geraldine Harris, and myself were the speakers.

Thanks to the Society's decision to hold it online this year, I'm finally able to attend another one after all these years, and I'm looking forward to it.  Though the start time of 4.30 am Pacific Time is just too early for me: I'm hoping to join the fun around 6 am. Of the several events I have marked down to attend I'm particularly looking forward to the Christopher Tolkien roundtable.

If you're both an early bird and interested in Tolkienian adaptations (the theme of this year's seminar), see you there.

--John R.

--current reading: THE AVEROIGNE CHRONICLES by Clark Ashton Smith (2016); FANTASIES OF TIME AND DEATH by Anna Vaninskaya (2020); AVILION by Rbt Holdstock (2009).

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Dunsany's "A NIGHT AT AN INN"

So, we mainly remember Dunsany today as a novelist and short story writer. But in his own time he was primarily known as a playwright. And of his many plays I think the best is A NIGHT AT AN INN, which appeared both in the collection PLAYS OF GODS AND MEN (1917) and as a stand-alone play (1916). Like most of his plays and stories it's quite short (a single act) and features the kind of surprise ending Dunsany did so well (something in which he resembles his contemporary, Saki).

What I had not known, until Doug A. drew it to my attention, is that A NIGHT AT AN INN had been filmed, not for theatrical release but as an episode of the show SUSPENSE as far back as 1949, in the early days of television. What's more, this tv adaptation had starred Boris Karloff as The Toff, a decayed gentleman turned master criminal.

If you're a fan of Dunsany, Karloff, or radio/tv thrillers, give it a try:

--John R.