The portfolio and blog of David Bennett

Category: Books

Mapping Mondays: Unknown Maps of Known Places

Most of the retellings of Arthurian legends that I’ve read are set in southern England or Cornwall. George Finkel’s Twilight Province is set primarily in the northern part of Britain just past Cataractonium (now Catterick in Yorkshire). Additionally, the story is narrated from the point of view of Bedwyr much like Gillian Bradshaw’s Hawk of May is told from the point of view of Gwalchmai ap Lot (AKA Gawain).

Fortunately, Twilight Province includes several detailed maps, but also includes a map Bedwyr purchases while abroad. He says this about the map:

“While a map is not an infallible guide to a traveller, in a strange country it is better than no guide at all. If it does not show the distance between one place and another, at least it shows their relationship regarding direction. Since there are ways, know to every boy in Britain, of finding the North — from the way moss grows on tree-trunks, for instance, or from Polaris in the constellation of the Bear — and it is known from the map that Ratae lies due north of Veralamium [sic], one at least knows in which direction to set off.”
– pages 114 and 116

Traveler's Map of Brittania

Mapping Mondays: Down the Rabbit Hole with Maps

For me, maps on the internet can be an easy rabbit hole to fall into. One of my favorite artists, John Stevenson, posted a map of Thylea he did for the Player’s Guide for Odyssey of the Dragonlords (which is available for free, by the way!). A while back, he also drew a map in similar style of the mythical land of Skenara.

That latter map was featured in the occasional Atlas of Design from the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS). A previous edition of that atlas included a map I think is absolutely beautiful by talented Seattle local Eleanor Lutz of the surface of Mars in a medieval style. She’s also done a companion piece for Venus with a similar etymological focus on place names as her Mars map, but in a different style. I’m definitely a fan of her work.

Skenara detail by John Stevenson (Sir Inkman)
Here there be robots detail by Eleanor Lutz (Tabletop Whale)

Mapping Monday: Books as a Multimedia Experience

At one time, it seemed like most fantasy novels came with maps. Not the highest quality maps since they were printed on cheap paper on a page size that greatly limited the amount of detail allowed. Everything from Fritz Lieber’s Faffhrd and the Grey Mouser books to Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern and Hugh Walker’s Magira series featured maps of fully-realized worlds. Even if many of the locations were never visited by the characters, they were mentioned in passing and existed as part of a larger setting.

Kings of the Wyld cover art by Richard Anderson
Kings of the Wyld
cover art by Richard Anderson

In this modern digital age, I’ve been reading more books in digital format and the focus seems to be less on the extras that are part of a physical book. The Amazon Kindle reader skips right past the cover and acknowledgements to the opening of the first chapter. When I started reading Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames, I was drawn in by the characters and the setting. I was thinking the book would be very much in line with Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy or something very much in the vein of other books best described as grimdark, which is not my favorite sub-genre, but very enjoyable in the proper mood. Kings of the Wyld is something very different in a way I can’t quite quantify, much more an epic retelling of a grimdark Dungeons and Dragons campaign that started out in college and then sat on the shelf for a couple of decades before the characters were brought back from retirement for one last gig. The book literally takes the idea of getting the band back together like an aging rock band and runs with it.

Portion of Kings of the Wyld world map in color as rendered by Tim Paul
Portion of Kings of the Wyld world map in color as rendered by Tim Paul

Naturally, with a setting like this, I became curious whether there was a map since none was included in the e-book I was reading. Even a fan-made map is enjoyable and well-made ones have a way of becoming canon or otherwise enhancing the reader’s experience. At least, that’s true for me. What I found instead was the author’s website with maps that included the author’s original hand-drawn map, illustrations, a soundtrack, and more. Increasingly, the web has opened up new vistas where authors can expand on their creation in ways that the limits of physical and digital books cannot, much to the delight of fans like myself.

Psi World Reading List

The Psi World game from FGU checks all the boxes. Dystopian future with possible cyberpunk overtones? Check. Persecuted minorities with psychic powers who are feared and hated for no reason? Check. Adventures that involve running from government forces and nefarious corporate-types with secret agendas? Check.

While many of the books on this list are about aliens with psychic powers living among us, they have more in common with the psionic humans in other books than their alien heritage would suggest. On the other hand, I’ve omitted books where the powers are simply technological in nature, such as Ramez Naam’s Nexus Trilogy or Linda Nagata’s The Bohr Maker. Similarly, the X-Men graphic novel God Loves Man Kills fits the genre tonally, but veers into the realm of superheroes rather than focusing on individuals whose powers are primarily mental and who are often limited in the strength of those powers or in the variety available to them. These are the books that inspired me and from which I drew the inspirations for the games I’ve run in this genre.

Gamma World Reading List and the Power of Appendix N

Gamma World 1st Edition box cover

For many old-school gamers who cut their teeth on Dungeons and Dragons, the Appendix N reading list from the AD&D Dungeonmaster’s Guide has become the archetype for gaming-related reading lists. As such, it referenced many obvious sources and inspirations for the rules such as Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series that were the basis for the game’s magic system. A similar reading list, credited to Barbara Davis, appeared in Tom Moldvay’s version of Basic D&D (with a discussion of the differences).

Over time, the Appendix N list has expanded, either with the addition of titles for books where only the author was referenced, the list of books belonging to a series, and books where the influence is so readily apparent that its inclusion seems like an omission. On the other hand, to me, “updated” lists are less of a representation of the influences on D&D and, more specifically, the influences on Gary Gygax when D&D was being created, and are more of a reflection of the tastes of the updater. Though the list may seem somewhat dated, the fact that it’s still a topic of discussion can’t be ignored. In an ENWorld Q&A thread, Gygax said, “The fact is that I wouldn’t change the list much other than to add a couple of novels such as Lanier’s second Hiero yarn, Piers Anthony’s Split Infinity series, and the Disc World books. I would never add other media forms to a reading list. If someone is interested in comic books and or graphic novels, they’re on their own.” (2007)

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Libraries Matter

The flailing world economy has affected everything, nothing more than the things we take for granted like public parks and libraries. The King County Library System, of which my local library is part, faces chronic budget shortfalls, though they never seem as severe as the woes experienced by Seattle Public Libraries. The rhetoric and reasoning behind cutting back at libraries always seems to focus on the idea that libraries are a luxury or that needs to be run as a business. When we talk about the efficiency of libraries, we miss the point, since libraries are more than the sum of their parts.

Facing even more severe budgetary problems, many libraries in Britain are on the block for closure. For that reason, people like author Philip Pullman are speaking out about the short-sighted nature of the closures. In a recent speech by Mr. Pullman, he said, in part:

“It’s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one arena that used to be safe from them, the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market. Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. I think that little by little we’re waking up to the truth about the market fanatics and their creed.”

“And you could go a little further back to the end of the nineteenth century and look at the ideas of “scientific management”, as it was called, the idea of Frederick Taylor that you could get more work out of an employee by splitting up his job into tiny parts and timing how long it took to do each one, and so on – the transformation of human craftsmanship into mechanical mass production.”

He also speaks about the wonders of libraries, their place in society and much more. If you spend time at your local library, you know these things and the importance of libraries and the skilled staff who work in those places. But articulating that defense to someone who sees things only in terms of dollars, who doesn’t think they should be taxed for services they don’t use (a notion that ignores the interconnected nature of society and how funding for schools has an impact on crime rates or how parks affect overall quality of life – intangibles that don’t lend themselves to line items in a budget), is a difficult proposition. The way Mr. Pullman expresses his opposition to the idea that government needs to be run like a business resonates perfectly with my thoughts on the subject.

It was at my local library when I was young that I chanced upon a copy of the script to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, complete with scenes cut for reasons of length. Perhaps not life-changing at that age, but definitely one of the more memorable finds among the cornucopia of offerings that could be found at the Vashon Public Library. And though I use computers all the time and make my living building websites, I still visit the library with my daughter almost every week. Because the internet isn’t a place and a website isn’t a book and a library isn’t a business. A library is something unique and wonderful that can’t be replaced.

The Demise of Books

Yesterday morning, I read a good Snarkmarket article about James Wolcott’s Vanity Fair article on the demise of books. Wolcott says, ‘How can I impress strangers with the gem-like flame of my literary passion if it’s a digital slate I’m carrying around, trying not to get it all thumbprinty?’ and then goes on to talk about, even if he’s being tongue-in-cheek, why he’s completely wrong. As Rex Sorgatz at Fimocolous says, ‘James Walcott [sic] cries that no one will see him reading Anna Karenina on the subway, or something like that.’

Then again, Wolcott also says, ‘An overgrown man-child and his precious collection can become a closed-loop co-dependency that functions as a moat.’ Sounds kind of like acquaintances of mine who are terrible hoarders. And if the essay suggests he’s bemoaning the disappearance of books and CDs, his conclusion suggests otherwise:
‘As all this space opens up—as the tokens of our cultural snobbery or keen connoisseurship (take your pick, depending on the degree of pretentious wankery you attribute to others) recede into the hideaway shelves and flash drives—what will refill it? “After two decades of defining ourselves in terms of our possessions,” Holly Brubach wrote recently in T: The New York Times Style Magazine, “we now need to figure out who we would be without them.” I suspect that once this downturn plateaus and shrinks in the rearview mirror, we’ll just stock up on other possessions, which will be arrayed and arranged to show off not our personal aesthetics or expensive whims but our ethics—our progressive virtues.’ In any event, Wolcott’s a good writer and it’s definitely worth reading.

On a related note, book lists by scholars including Social Media, Bollywood and the Science of Sex from the New York Review of Ideas.

Reader’s Advisories and Books I Read

A few questions that come up sporadically from friends and co-workers are what books do you like to read, where do you find new books and new authors, and can you recommend a few. Since I know how much tastes differ and having rather strong tastes myself, those are difficult questions. What I like to read varies from month to month, though I have a solid set of favorites that rarely changes. I find new things to read through a combination of my local library, perusing shelves at local bookstores and online through new release listings. I also read authors’ blogs and read their recommendations on the work of other authors.

As far as my list being a reader’s advisory, I’d say it’s highly suspect. I read a number of different books for a number of different reasons. Some are out-and-out junk that I read purely for entertainment and because they don’t tax my brain. Others I read in pursuit of a line of research or just because I’m interested in a given topic. Some are career-related or are part of my professional development. And there are certain authors whose new work I almost always read, no matter when it comes out, interrupting all my other reading. When I get around to tagging and generally categorizing my books, readers might be able to see a few common themes and interests.

I’m leveraging a no-longer-maintained WordPress plugin called Now Reading, though I’ve installed the updated version that works better with WP 2.7+ with a few customizations of my own. I really like it as a jumping off point since it saved me a bunch of grunt work in creating a plugin from scratch, but there are other changes I’d like to make. Amazon search is rather primitive (at first blush, it appears to be a simple screen-scraper) and I’d like to do something more like LinkedIn’s reading list widget leveraging the Amazon Product Advertising API. None of the books are tagged, so that’s next on my list. I’d also like to have small-sized and large-sized images that are stored locally rather than pulling them in from Amazon every time. This is in part because the Amazon links aren’t necessarily to the copies of the book I’d prefer and the out-of-print books I have in my library may not have cover images online. After that, I’d also like to add long reviews to the books in addition to the short descriptions on my main library page, particularly for my favorite books.

There were some plugins for Joomla! including one called JCollection that offered a little more versatility with the flexibility to create individual listings of movies, music, books or whatever else. But customizing the front-end was almost incomprehensible and the back-end was a little more primitive than I wanted with no way, for example, to easily integrate musical genres in the way that I wanted. It was also 1.5 legacy at the time I was considering it, though there’s now a 1.5 native version as an alpha. So I’ll be keeping an eye on it and other plugins that might offer interesting functionality.

So my library is very much a work in progress, but it’s a start.

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