Friday, March 26, 2010

Blinded me with SCIENCE! And Fantasy. Wow, this is a lame title.

All right, time to dive into my Movie Tavern Mug and see what sort of mystery I am to address today.

"J.K., can you tell us about some of your favorite Sci-Fi and Fantasy universes?"


We all love speculative fiction, whether it's because they show us the world as we think it should be, because they show us the infinite possibilities of imagination, or because we as a species like swords and lasers. And as different settings become lucrative for the author, they have a tendency to expand into an entire mythos. So, here are some of my favorites.

1. Bas-Lag

And right off the bat I start with one you've probably never heard of. Does this mean I get some sort of Indie Cred?


Nerts. All right, so one of the setting that seems to be en vogue among most of my friends is the steampunk setting. You know, those settings where you get ridiculous technology based on the steam engine, and Victorian Era clothing reigns supreme. Well, take some steam punk technology, enough different monsters to make the Monstrous Manual jealous, a little dystopia, and you've got the Bas-Lag setting. Thus far there are three books in this setting, Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and The Iron Council.

So, two of the three books take place in the city-state of New Crobuzon, a sprawling steampunk metropolis built around the bones of a giant dead monster. No one is entirely sure what it was, or how the city got there; it's just there. And what resides in this city?

If you said humans, elves, dwarves, and orcs, you are incorrect. Go sit in the corner.

Instead of your standard assortment of fantasy races, China Mieville set about to create his own. Such as seven foot tall cactus people. Or fish men with the power to manipulate water into shapes, which they use to control shipping. Or women who look perfectly normal, aside from the red skin and the fact that they have a complete scarab for a head. And no, they don't have a scarab's head. They have a scarab FOR a head. And that's just a small sampling. The author admits that he pretty much created this setting just so he could design monsters, and has been working on a sourcebook of races and creatures that exist in the Bas Lag setting for the past few years.

And you know how some settings have the occasional intrusion by some sort of mysterious, nigh omnipotent, extradimensional being that is supposedly beyond our understanding? This series features the time I've seen that concept best handled, in the form of a group of beings called the Weavers. Like all of the creatures in these books, they're pretty imaginatively designed. My description doesn't NEARLY do them justice, but they look like spider/human hybrids, in which a couple of their legs end in pincers and a couple end in human hands. But more importantly, unlike other so-called omnipotent beings beyond our ken, you can't even BEGIN to figure out what makes these things tick. They're shown collecting random things such as scissors, or playing a game of tic-tac-toe with a corpse, or just killing people at apparently random intervals. Why? They see the universe from a different angle than we do, and are doing things that, apparently, make it more aesthetically pleasing. To further emphasize how different these things are from us, when the Weavers attempt to speak to the more mortal denizens of Bas-Lag, they have speech patterns that are, at best, difficult to follow. And why shouldn't they be? They're half in this universe, half in another.

And it's not all just the flash from the creatures and their descriptions: the stories are gripping and well written (unlike the showings from a couple other settings on this list), and well worth a look.

Finally, I know a bunch of you are fans of the webcomic Questionable Content. Well, Dora's cat is named for the author of this setting. That's right, Jeph Jacques is telling you to go read these books. Isn't that worth something?

2. The Protomen's Take on the Mega Man Universe

Okay, when I first heard of this band, I thought the EXACT same thing you are probably thinking now. "A band that does rock operas based on the Mega Man video games? Oh God, this is gonna be terrible. It has to be a bunch of nerds with keyboards and guitars operating out of a basement somewhere with really badly written music and..."

"Holy BALLS that's awesome."

In fact, if I hadn't told you that this was designed as a Mega Man song, you probably would have thought it was an epic rock bit about mankind sucking. But if you listen to the albums as a whole (both their self titled debut and the prequel, Father of Death), you see how they took a relatively bright and plotless set of awesome games (Oh noes! Scientist has robots and is attempting to take over world!) and made it into something dark and thought provoking (Doctor Wily has taken over this city, and is watching you, for good and for bad). It addresses the question of whether a society should wait for a hero to come and save it, whether the world can be saved by just one man, and it rocks out while doing it. The members of the band further add to the atmosphere by performing the shows and writing their newsletters in character, as a bunch of freedom fighters who have been inspired by the examples of Doctor Light, Megaman, and a few others who I'm not going to spoil here, and are attempting to wrest their freedom from the power hungry grasp of Doctor Wily.

Like all rock operas, sometimes parts of the story are hard to grasp without checking the liner notes, but compared to a lot of the ones I've listened to, the Protomen stories are pretty coherent and not too hard to figure out once you get going (although you might miss one or two crowning moments of awesome if you don't read the liner notes).

All in all, it's definitely something worth checking out.

3. Mobile Suit Gundam, the Universal Century Timeline

As you've probably figured out, I have a certain fondness for BIG GODDAMN ROBOTS. So, you probably find it only natural that I stick some Gundam on this list. I'm going to restrain myself, however, from putting timeline after timeline of Gundam on this list, and stick with the original Universal Century Timeline. Sorry, all you Wing fans. And for all you G Gundam fans, take solace that I love that timeline for largely different reasons than I like the Universal Century and After Colony Universes.

So, back in the 60s and 70s, most anime robot shows involved everyone having a unique, customized robot, the heroes were well defined as such, and the robots would combine and transform in utterly ridiculous ways. Well, in 1979, Yoshiyuki Tomino decided to take the giant robot genre in a slightly different direction, and spawned a franchise that has lasted for thirty years. In the Gundam settings, with a few exceptions, most of the giant robots are either Mass Produced designs for an army, or prototypes for an eventual less powerful, more practical mass produced design. In many series, a character's machine is simply a version of the mass produced machine that is either a slightly improved, more expensive factory variant, or something cobbled together with spare parts. And while usually the series tend to follow the elite members of the various factions, in whatever prototype units they happen to fall into, we get the occasional bit where we follow the life and times of the grunts (such as in possibly my favorite Gundam Series, the 08th MS Team).

And while the Gundam series is certainly known for its plethora of robots, perhaps what it's even more well known for are the internal politics within the show, and the grey and grey morality. For example, the hero from the Original MS Gundam series, fought a good chunk of the war and kicked a good amount of ass by himself, is kept under house arrest in a later series because the side he fought for thinks he could be dangerous. And in 0083 Stardust Memory, we see some people from the losing side of the original war steal a weapon of mass destruction to try to restart the war, only to find out that the Federation, the ostensibly good guys, let them do this for their own sinister purposes. And again, 08th MS team: it explores the humanity of the characters on both sides, in the form of a love story from opposite sides of the battlefield.

While yes, the robots still seem a little sleek for a realistic take, and yes, the show can be filled with hilariously awesome narm at times, all in all it's still a setting I really enjoy. Now, if only we could find a setting in which the robots felt even more clunky and realistic...Sniff I smell a segue?

4. Battletech

Oh look. More BIG GODDAMN ROBOTS! Waaaaaait. Those look WAAAAAAAAY different from the last set of BGRs.

Well, back in the Mid 80s, a couple game designers saw some of the more "realistic" anime robot shows and wondered, "What would a Western version of this genre look like?" So, they set about designing a game, which spun off into some novels, a TV show, the Mechwarrior video games, and a mediocre card game that would inspire a love of giant robots in a ten year old boy.

The universe is set in the thirty first century. Mankind has gone into space, colonized hundreds of planets, formed different nations (IN SPACE!) and then went to war with each other. But it's okay, because they make the Space UN (Oh, I'm sorry, I mean STAR LEAGUE) and there's a golden age of prosperity.

Until the family that headed up the Star League gets assassinated. Cue a few centuries of intense warfare, and massive technological destruction. Now most of the robots being built are much crappier than the robots built in the Golden Age, a lot of the armies are made up of salvaged parts held together with chewing gum and a lot of prayer, and a changing flag on a border world is just an average day. Of course, the setting gets more complex and the technology advances further back to where it was as time passes, but you still have that clunky, inefficient, overheating robot feel to the setting that's really enjoyable.

Another big thing that draws me to this setting is that, any type of faction you could possibly want to play as, you can find a match somewhere in Battletech. Want to be a space samurai in a giant robot? Got a faction for that. Want to be the Roman Legions IN SPACE? Got a faction for that. Want to be a drugged out Indiana Jones from an oppressive warrior culture in a giant robot? Got a faction for that. Want to be a part of some giant religious conspiracy that could threaten to wipe out the rest of mankind? Here you go! Want to be a pirate? Got you covered! Want to be a member of a small, paranoid nation? Do you want that in Chinese/Russian, Frontier, or Aggressive Warrior Society?

Of course, not all the novels are well written, and the main protagonist of a lot of the books eats more than his share of stupid pills, but all in all, it's a very enjoyable mecha setting, with at least one group for you to be able to get behind.

(Note: Okay, some of you are probably grumpy that I only stuck faction logos behind the links rather than information about the factions. If I did that, you'd be here all day.)

5. The Dresden Files

And now for something completely different: no robots of any kind. Basically, take one part Harry Potter, two parts detective novel, add a dash of Spider-Man, and you've got the Dresden Files. This series of novels by Jim Butcher follows the life and adventures of Harry Dresden, Wizard and Private Eye. It mixes a little bit of that hard boiled, first person atmosphere with plenty of humor and a little bit of magic. For example, where else but the Dresden Files would you see a Wizard hijack a 24 hour cycle bad luck murder curse to use against a vampire, resulting in an plane flying overhead accidentally dropping its cargo of frozen turkeys so that poultry falling at terminal velocity takes out the offending nosferatu?

The writing is clever, the characters are imaginative, and the stories are filled with action, and some running intrigue (who is the traitor on the White Council? What's so special about Harry anyway?). It'll definitely bring you back for more.

6. Warhammer 40,000

What happens when you take a standard fantasy setting, and throw it a few thousand years into the future? And what happens if that setting was already a pretty dark setting to begin with? WARHAMMER 40K, that's what! If you've ever played Starcraft, it was originally supposed to be a computerized game for this setting, but legal troubles ensued. So, we got Starcraft, the lighter, happier version of Warhammer 40k.

Yes. You read that correctly. Starcraft is the LIGHTER, HAPPIER version of Warhammer 40k. What do I mean?

1. The Imperium of Man is corrupt, vast, fascistic, and under attack on all sides from aliens.
2. The Tyranids, insectoid monsters, are running through known space like a plague of locusts. And all indications seem to show that this is just a precursor hive before the REAL swarm comes.
3. Unstoppable undead cyborgs are attempting to assimilate or destroy everything.
4. Space Orks. Oh God, the Space Orks.

The universe is brutal, hopeless...and fun. While the setting is dark and depressing, the creators slip moments of hilarity in, such as the recruitment posters comparing the Space Marines (power armored, well equipped titans of men) to the Imperial Guard ("Your faith is your armor").

And as you'd probably guess, the Orks are a hilarious hodgepodge of crappy technology that somehow works, despite it not making sense. For instance, in the table top game, there's a rule that red painted units do, in fact, go faster, despite not having any other differences.

Dark, disturbing, and strangely hilarious: Warhammer 40K.

7. Doctor Who

For such a long running series, I'm an extreme newcomer to it, but it's quickly jumped up into my favorites. And not just for the new series, either. While the old show was made on a shoestring budget, and some of the effects haven't aged particularly well, many of the old stories are well thought out.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this gem of British programming, it basically follows the adventures over many lifetimes of a time traveling alien known only as "The Doctor." He hops about in his Phone Booth Space/Time Machine looking for fun, and to help people out, bringing along with him people he meets on the way. While the bulk of the show was filmed with rubber suit aliens, that's some of the charm. And many of the stories are still well thought out, and make you think. Probably the most frequent question the show poses, in both the old and new, are whether humans are something wonderful to be treasured, or whether they're bastard coated bastards with bastard filling.

And whoever you are, there's a Doctor for you, whether it's the clever and geeky David Tennant, the insane Tom Baker, the chessmaster Sylvester McCoy, or any of the other incarnations.

And just try watching "The Girl in the Fireplace" and not get paranoid whenever you hear a ticking sound.

8. Neil Gaiman's corner of the DC/Vertigo Universe

I felt like it would be a cop out to pick an entire comic book universe. I mean, after all, there are good portions of both the DC and Marvel universes that I don't like. However, I thought that this little corner was worth mentioning. Most of you by now are at least familiar with Gaiman's mythpunk series the Sandman. If you're not, it follows the life (if you can really call it that) of an immortal being which is dreams incarnate. It deals with his relationships with humans, gods, devils, and everything in between.

Fewer of you have probably looked into Mike Carey's spinoff series, Lucifer, which follows the exploits of the eponymous embodiment of evil as he tries to find freedom from a God he feels is oppressive and totalitarian. Much like Paradise Lost, in this series the Devil is cast in a fairly sympathetic light: he's a manipulative prick, but you can't help but root for him, as he's charismatic (when Gaiman first wrote him into the Sandman series, he had the artist base him on David Bowie) and he's motivated by a desire to find his own path. While it's not quite as good as Gaiman's work, it's definitely worth a read.

9. Bill Willingham's Fables

If Gaiman's work is Mythpunk, Willingham's Fables is folkpunk. Imagine, if you will, that every fairy tale, every story, actually existed in some other world. Now, imagine, if you would, that something big, something evil, had driven all these immortal creatures to our world, where they live in hiding. This is the setting of the comic book series Fables.

As you can probably guess, there's a rich cast of characters, like the Big Bad Wolf (the chief detective in Fabletown), Snow White (the overworked Deputy Mayor of Fabletown), Jack Horner (con man), Beauty and the Beast (stressed married couple), and the Frog Prince (janitor). The series follows the people of Fabletown as they try to stay in hiding from the mundane world, as they try to prepare for possible invasion from the evil things that have driven them from their previous homes. And of course, even fairy tale characters aren't immune to the lures of ambition and greed. This series is engrossing, and probably the closest thing in comics to come to Gaiman's Sandman or Alan Moore's Swamp Thing since those series ended.

10. Discworld

What Douglas Adams did to science fiction, Sir Terry Pratchett continues to do to fantasy. In a world held up by four elephants which walk in a circle on the back of a giant turtle, who travels in some unknown direction, we have a wizzard (sic) who knows no magic and whose primary talent is running away, a possible heir to a long abandoned throne who is perfectly content to serve as a night watchman (did I mention he was raised by dwarves and is easily taller than me?), a magical computer which features cheese as an integral part for reasons we don't quite understand, the most badass, machiavellian ruler I've ever seen, know what? Just read some of the Discworld books. If you investigate nothing else on this list, and you enjoyed the Hitchhiker's Guide books, read the Discworld books. You'll be glad you did.

This is by no means an exhaustive list on all my favorite universes. After all, plenty of awesome fictional realms out there. But these ten are some that I felt were worth mentioning, and that I hope you enjoy some of as well.

This is J. K. Lantern, signing off for now!



    The only Warhammer 40K figures I ever bought was this little box of Orks. I can't paint worth beans, but I painted those lil' guyz 'cause I love 'em so. I gently cut off the right hand of their leader (Jornutz), jammed a sword in there and set him off on his way to lead the Grinna Boyz to guard a bookshelf from da humies.

    To date, no Space Marines have taken the position.

  2. I think Warboss Metal McHaggis is still floating around my possessions somewhere, in all his rust covered glory.