Here’s a nice audio version of “Devil Car” by Roger Zelazny, which appeared in Galaxy magazine in 1965. It’s about a man who drives a heavily armed and armored AI car, which he uses to hunt down other AI cars that have murdered their drivers and now roam in packs across the wilderness.
Here are two new reviews I came across of my story “The Disciple”:
From Doug Bolden’s review of Dead But Dreaming:
One of my favorites. While it seems to be setting up for one style, a delightfully dark twist pulls it all together. Its Mythos creation feels both appropriately cosmic, dangerous, and weird, with what horror there is being more in having perspective realigned. In this way, it is possibly one of the more authentic Lovecraftian tales.
From Michael Tresca’s review of Dead But Dreaming for RPG Examiner:
David Barr Kirtley manages to do what so many have failed: He creates a story about an arcane professor that is horrific without being cheesy. Too many Mythos authors cast Miskatonic University as a college seething with kooks casting spells, but Kirtley cleverly turns the usual crazy professor plot on its ear. 4 out of 5 stars.
Here we return to the characters and setting from ‘The Skull-Faced Boy,’ which appeared in the previous volume. It’s a very twisted little story with a lot of action, and it makes the reader grin.
Lately I’ve been listening to some stories by Robert Sheckley (1928-2005), who Neil Gaiman calls “Probably the best short story writer during the ’50s to the mid-1960s working in any field.” The stories are very funny and clever, similar in tone to Douglas Adams. Here’s a list of what’s online:
(I’m still in the process of making them all links.)
From X Minus One (full cast adaptations from 1950s radio)
|“A Wind is Rising”||“Early Model”||“Protection”||“Bad Medicine”||“Trap”||“Death Wish”||“Grey Flannel Armor”||“The Native Problem”||“Skulking Permit”||“Something For Nothing”||“The Seventh Victim”||“The Lifeboat Mutiny”|
From Librovox (stories read by volunteers)
|“Hour of Battle”||“Cost of Living”||“Forever”||“Warrior Race”||“Ask a Foolish Question”||“Beside Still Waters”||“Leech”||“Warm”|
|“Petrified Forest”||“On An Experience in a Corn Field”|
Phantasie from SSI was the first computer role-playing game I ever played seriously, and the first one I ever beat. It came out in 1985, so I would have been around eight years old. I also spent a lot of time playing Phantasie III. Both games are basically the same, with some minor differences. (Phantasie II wasn’t released for the PC, so I never played it.)
One interesting feature was the bank. You could deposit money in the bank, then withdraw it from any other bank in any other town. That meant that if monsters robbed you (see below), you were only at risk of losing the money you were carrying, not all the money you owned.
Before you started adventuring, you needed to roll up a party of six heroes. Here are the hero graphics from Phantasie III:
Along the top row you’ve got your standard hero races: human, dwarf, elf, gnome, and halfling. You could also select “random,” which would throw out all manner of weird monsters — trolls, ogres, lizard men, pixies, minotaurs, etc. (The bottom row.) Pixies and sprites made good thieves, and big ugly monsters like trolls and ogres made good fighters, but the downside to picking them was that training them was very expensive, due to racism on the part of the training guilds. In Phantasie it was helpful to have a minotaur in the party, since there was a city of minotaurs that you could only enter if there was a minotaur in your party.
Once your party’s assembled, you’d explore the world by navigating an overhead map:
On the first few screens you’d get a complete map, but after that you’d see only a black screen, which would get filled in as you explored. You’d also encounter bands of roving monsters. Sometimes you’d spot them first, and have the choice to either sneak off or take them by surprise. Sometimes you’d catch them sleeping, and have the chance to hack away at them as they woke up one by one. Or they might surprise you or catch you sleeping. At any point during an encounter either side would have the option to greet the other party, threaten them, beg for mercy, or run away. Threatening monsters was a good way to get your hands on their gold without having to actually fight, and begging for mercy was a way that you could avoid a fight by handing over all your gold.
That variety of scenarios and options made things interesting, but of course most encounters led to bloodshed, especially if you’d entered the monsters’ lair. (Each dungeon involved a separate map that got filled in as you explored.) Combat was played out on its own screen, with your heroes lined up along the bottom:
Melee fighters could hit the first two rows, and you could choose which row to attack, but you couldn’t target individual monsters. Higher level fighters could attack multiple times per turn, but at the cost of missing more often. Thieves could skulk around and strike at the back row. Magic could also target any row, and the different spells were basically a tradeoff between spells that weakened lots of monsters a little bit versus spells that did a lot of damage to one particular monster.
Mostly the monsters got more powerful the farther you ventured from home, but one big exception was black knights, who could show up anywhere:
They were among the most powerful monsters in the game, so you’d have no choice but to run whenever you saw them, sort of like the Nazgul in Fellowship of the Ring. This made it especially gratifying toward the end of the game when you were finally strong enough to stand up to them and defeat them.
If every member of your party was killed, you’d travel to the astral plane, where each character would face judgment:
It was never clear to me what criteria were being applied. If the powers really didn’t like a character, that character would be destroyed, and would be gone forever. Most of the time the character would be made undead, and would come back as a crappier version of himself who was unable to learn anything new. Or a character might be resurrected, and suffer only a minor stat penalty. Most of the time if the party was killed it was better to just reload your game (there was one save slot, which could only be accessed from town), but if you’d gotten your hands on some spectacular loot or if you didn’t want to spend hours replaying a particular sequence, you might choose to live with the consequences of being judged.
Another interesting feature of Phantasie is that the game kept track of the age of each character, and when the characters reached a certain age their base stats declined enormously. It was really a shock the first time that happened, and it was really heartbreaking to have to dismiss all these characters I’d grown attached to, including my minotaur, “Bully.” (I rolled up a new character to replace him, “Bully II.”) This aging of the characters really drove home the epic scale of the quest — that breaking the stranglehold of the evil wizard Nikademus would take generations. It also limited your ability to endlessly grind up the stats of your characters, though you could still transfer all the magical gear you’d acquired to your fresh young heroes, so it wasn’t as if you were completely starting over from scratch.
Two incidents really stick out for me from Phantasie III. Near the beginning, your party is sent to attend the funeral of a fallen hero. Then the main bad guy Nikademus appears and starts blasting everyone with fireballs. As the mourners lie dead and wounded, Nikademus declares that you are all fools to defy him, and teleports away. Then later there’s a part where you find a hut on the bank of a river, and there’s a kindly old man there serving magic soup that permanently increases your base stats. Nothing else in the game can do that, so it’s a huge deal. Then the old man reveals himself as Nikademus in disguise, and he promises that this is only a taste of the power that can be yours if you join with him. He then vanishes. Both those moments are really just creepy and unsettling.
I never did beat Phantasie III. It’s short, but it’s hard. A lot of the difficulty comes from the fact that the game features body part-specific damage. Powerful blows can now injure, break, or remove arms, legs, and heads:
It sounds cool, but in practice it’s really frustrating, as your characters are now vastly more fragile, and it seems like half the time everyone’s out of commission due to a missing arm or head or something. There’s one part of the game where you have to venture into this giant tent where a battle is in progress in order to meet with Lord Wood, leader of the forces of light. (I imagine the game’s designer Doug Wood was trying to position himself as a video game celebrity on the order of Lord British, but I don’t think it ever really caught on.) I could make it to Lord Wood, but then you have to fight your way back out of the tent again, and practically every step you take you encounter another giant. I don’t think I ever made it past that part.
So for me at least that’s where the story of Phantasie ends. In a big tent with Lord Wood getting pounded on by giants:
If you want to see these games in action, there are videos up on YouTube of Phantasie and Phantasie III (from which I grabbed some of these screenshots). There are also good writeups of Phantasie and Phantasie III over at CRPG Addict.
New books I’m in:
Check out the cool new video for Auro: The Golden Prince, a turn-based strategy game currently in development by Dinofarm Games, makers of the fantastically fun and addictive 100 Rogues.
Also check out Episode 47 of my Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which includes an appearance by Keith Burgun, lead designer of Auro and 100 Rogues.
My short story “Beauty,” a twisted modern-day retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” will appear in an upcoming issue of Lightspeed. This is the story that I read at Borders last year. Here’s a snippet:
“Yeah, I mean, things used to be a lot better there, before the whole, you know…” He gestured at his appearance.
“Oh,” Nicole said. “So it’s…”
“A spell.” The beast nodded wearily. “Yeah. I actually used to be pretty handsome, if you can believe that.”
“So what happened?”
He lowered his voice. “I was cursed by an evil sorceress.” He held up his huge paws. “She turned me into this.”
Nicole gasped. “That’s horrible.”
The beast sighed. “Oh, it’s not so bad. I have some magic talking furniture that keeps me company. It’s enough, most of the time…” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Look, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to … maybe I should go.” He started to get up.
“Wait,” Nicole said. “No. It’s all right, really.” She added, “I’ve never met anyone before who owned any magic talking furniture.”
He glanced at her hopefully, then sat back down again.
They chatted for a long time, then she walked with him back to his apartment, and he invited her up for a drink. The apartment was small, and kind of a mess.
“I should straighten up a bit,” said the beast.
“No, it’s fine,” Nicole assured him. She glanced through a doorway into the kitchen. “Where’s the magic furniture?”
He lumbered into the living room and turned on his tiny television. “That’s it.”
She stared. “That’s just a television.”
“It talks,” the beast said weakly.
“But … that’s not magic at all.”
He settled down on the couch and hung his head in his paws. “I know,” he moaned, “I haven’t got any magic furniture. I haven’t got anything.”
“Hey,” Nicole said softly. “Don’t worry. It’ll be all right.”
Episode 50 of my science fiction podcast is now up on io9. In this show we interview Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club and Damned, about chatting with telemarketers, being appalled by Hollywood hypocrisy, and writing stories that make people faint dead away. Then stick around after the interview as guest geek Grady Hendrix, author of Satan Loves You, joins us to discuss demons, devils, and hell in fantasy and science fiction.
Here’s the cover for Armored, which includes my short story “Power Armor: A Love Story.”
Wow, check out this letter I just got about my story “Save Me Plz”:
I came across your short story “Save Me Plz” on your website maybe a year and a half ago, and I liked it. I actually forwarded it to a friend of mine, who I was really worried about then because he spent so much time playing MMOs and wasn’t doing well, failing his studies and kind of withdrawing from us. Reading the story was apparently a turning point for him, a wake-up call if you want, and it’s great to see that he is doing much, much better now. He even said once that the story “saved his life.”
Episode 49 of my science fiction podcast is now up at io9. In this show R.A. Salvatore, creator of the popular Dungeons & Dragons character Drizzt Do’Urden, joins us to discuss breaking into novel writing, getting a phone call from bloody sock guy, and why a city of evil elves is a lot like Middle School. Then stick around after the interview as guest geek James Sutter joins us to discuss Dungeons & Dragons.
Episode 48 of my science fiction podcast is up at io9. In this show we interview Lev Grossman, book critic for TIME Magazine and author of the fantasy novels The Magicians and The Magician King, which take a skeptical look at the idea that attending a wizard school or traveling to a magical kingdom would be all wonder and adventure. Then stick around after the interview as guest geek Doug Cohen joins us to discuss A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin.
Episode 47 of my science fiction podcast is now up at io9. In this show we interview Neal Stephenson about farming gold, learning Western martial arts, and changing the world through science fiction. Then stick around after the interview as guest geek Keith Burgun joins us to discuss what makes a good computer role-playing game.
So Friday night I rode Metro North home from Manhattan. I’m sitting all the way in the first car, which tends to be the quietest, and just as the train is pulling out of Grand Central a guy sits down across the aisle from me. He glances back over his shoulder once or twice, then says, “Man, that guy just hit me.”
I look up, then glance toward the back of the car, but don’t see anyone. “What guy?”
There are doors connecting each car, and each door has a window in it. The guy is looking through those windows into the next car. “Look, that’s him there. Look.”
I lean out into the aisle. As the train moves through the tunnels it bends, so that the windows aren’t aligned, but I catch a glimpse of a guy in white in the middle of the next car. “Who is he?”
“I don’t know,” says the guy sitting next to me. He’s in his thirties, short, a little stocky, maybe of Indian descent, with a shaved head and stipples of acne scars across his cheeks. He’s dressed in dark colors, jeans and a lightweight zip-up sweatshirt. He looks a bit like the captain who dies at the beginning of Star Trek (2009). His name, I learn later, is Bob.
He says, “I was getting on the train, right, and I kind of bumped into him, and I said I was sorry, but he just sort of grabbed my face, like this, and shoved me back. See, that’s him right there. He’s coming.”
I stand to block the aisle, but Bob says, “No, man. Don’t get involved. Really. It’s cool. Sit down.”
Reluctantly, I sit back down. I’m thinking that maybe blocking the aisle will spark a confrontation and make things worse, or draw unwanted attention to Bob. He has a styrofoam container on his lap, Indian or Mexican food.
He shakes his head. “You know what? If he hits me he hits me. What can I do?”
He turns to face the window and tries to look inconspicuous as the other guy comes down the aisle toward us.
The guy is big and beefy, dressed in work boots and a white T-shirt. Maybe of Irish descent. Probably a construction worker, from his build and dress. He’s about sixty, with a full head of white hair, and was maybe handsome once, but now sort of looks like a crazy pirate. He passes by Bob, and for a moment I think everything’s cool, that the guy’s just looking for a seat.
Then the guy catches sight of Bob out of the corner of his eye, and without a word he turns and punches him in the cheek. Bob’s food goes flying and he holds up his hands as the guy punches him again.
I leap up and wrap my arm around the guy’s throat and try to drag him back, but he’s probably got a hundred pounds on me. Still, Bob manages to scramble up from his seat and into the aisle. The guy lunges at Bob, still punching him, as I try to hold the guy back. Behind Bob, the conductor, a short young guy, shouts, “Hey! Hey, guys! No fighting on the train.”
Bob falls onto his back, and the crazy guy falls on top of him, with me still squeezing the guy’s throat. Bob is punching back now, and screaming, “What the fuck, man? Why are you hitting me?” Crazy guy keeps punching with his right hand, and since my right arm is around his neck I can’t stop him. I let go of his neck and try to grab his arm, but it’s an awkward position and I can’t do much. The conductor is still yelling, and so are a bunch of people behind him.
Finally Bob scrambles out from under crazy guy and stumbles to his feet, and the conductor grabs him and pulls him away. I stand up and back off. Crazy guy is still on the ground between us, and Bob is screaming, “That guy just fucking attacked me for no reason!” and the conductor is saying, “I know, I know. Just calm down.”
Crazy guy pulls himself to his feet. He turns on me, and his eyes look totally insane. There’s a cut between his eyebrows, and his face is slick with blood. He’s an inch or two taller than me and a lot heavier, and I can see that he’s about to take a swing at me. Up until now I’ve been too surprised to be scared, but now I’m scared. I back away, holding up a hand and saying, “Man, you need to calm down.”
I move into the area by the doors, where there’s more room, and crazy guy follows me, but slowly, somewhat dazed. The conductor comes over and stands beside me. It seems to occur to crazy guy that an altercation with the conductor might involve some serious jail time. He wanders away to the far end of the car and stands there, wiping blood out of his eyes.
There are a bunch of other people there, a man and a woman and some kids, and for a moment I’m afraid they’re friends of crazy guy and are going to join the fight. One of them approaches, a white guy with a mustache, average build.
“Do you know that guy?” I say.
“No,” he says.
Bob is still screaming. His voice is almost cracking with emotion. “Come over here and hit me again! You crazy fuck! Come over here and hit me again!”
I really wish he would stop doing that. For a moment it seems inevitable that crazy guy is going to wade back in. Then crazy guy starts yelling back. “You ran into me!”
“I bumped you accidentally,” Bob yells. “And I said I was sorry. You crazy fucking asshole!”
“And you’re a fucking … “ Crazy guy pauses. I get the sense he’s trying to come up with a racial slur, but isn’t sure which one might apply. “…piece of shit!” he finishes.
“You fucking hit me, asshole!” Bob yells. “And look at you, bleeding like a little bitch! Come on, try it again. Try it again!”
The woman is trying to calm Bob down. She says repeatedly, “Do you have a family? Listen, do you have a family? For their sake just walk away.”
By now the fire seems to have gone out of crazy guy. He’s standing in his end of the car, shaking his head and shrugging, acting drunkenly nonchalant about the taunts, as if he’s above all this.
“Come on,” the conductor says to Bob, ushering him back.
“I didn’t do anything,” Bob says. “That guy just hit me.”
“I know,” the conductor says. “Come on.”
Bob says, “Can I get my food at least?”
The conductor surveys the remains of Bob’s food, which looks like it’s been hit by a bomb. “Your food…” He shakes his head. “It’s gone, man.”
The conductor leads Bob away, and I gather up my things and follow after them. They pass through the next car, and then into the one after that. At the far end of that car they pause, and the conductor says, “Have you been drinking?”
“Look, I’m not going to lie to you,” Bob says, “Yes, I’m drunk. But I’m not that drunk, and I didn’t do anything to that guy. He just hit me for no reason.”
“I can be a witness,” I say. “I saw the guy hit him. It was completely unprovoked.”
“All right.” The conductor turns back to Bob. “The police are going to meet us at the next stop, all right?”
“No, man,” Bob moans. “I didn’t do anything. I just want to go home.”
“I know,” the conductor says. “Do you want to press charges?”
“No, I don’t want to press charges,” Bob says. “I just want to go home.”
I keep glancing back toward the front of the train, but there’s no sign of crazy guy. A few minutes later we pull into the Harlem-125th Street station. The doors open and two uniformed cops come aboard. Young guys. One of them, a tall, pale, skinny guy with black hair and a cynical gaze, approaches. “Is this the guy?” he says, looking at Bob. The conductor nods.
The cop says, “So what happened?”
Bob explains about bumping into the guy as they were boarding the train, and how the guy shoved him, and then came over and attacked him. Bob says, “And he flashed some sort of badge at me. He’s a firefighter, I think. Like, what the hell does that mean?”
“All right,” the cop says. “Step off the train.”
“No, man,” Bob moans. “I don’t want to get off the train. I just want to go home.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have been fighting then,” the cop snaps. “Come on.”
Bob follows the cop out onto the platform, and I stand in the open doorway, watching. The cop questions the conductor, then questions Bob. An announcement comes over the PA apologizing for the delay.
I step out onto the platform. The other cop goes looking for crazy guy, but returns a short time later, exasperated that the conductor didn’t tag along to point out crazy guy. That cop and the conductor head off toward the front of the train. The first cop asks Bob for ID.
The other cop emerges from the train at the far end of the platform with crazy guy in tow, and questions him.
The first cop says to Bob, “He just hit you? You didn’t do anything?”
“No, man,” Bob says. He gestures at me. “This guy here, I don’t even know this guy at all. He can tell you.”
The cop says, “You’re a witness? You saw what happened?”
I say, “Yeah, I saw where the gentleman hit him on the train here.”
The cop turns back to Bob. “Do you want to press charges?”
“No, man. I don’t care. I forgive him. I just want to go home.”
Finally the cop says, “All right.” He holds up a bulky black device with a slip of paper showing. “Sign here.” Bob signs.
The conductor returns. He says to Bob, “You want to get back on the train? That guy’s off. You want to get back on?”
“Yeah,” Bob says, and we step back onto the train. The doors close and the train starts moving again. A well-dressed older couple is sitting nearby, and the woman is staring at us with a mix of suspicion and curiosity, and making no effort to be subtle about it.
The conductor passes us, and Bob tries to hand the guy his ticket, but the conductor waves him off. “No, don’t worry about it.”
When the conductor’s gone, Bob says, “Thanks, man. If you hadn’t been there I might have been in a lot of trouble with the cops.”
“Yeah, sure,” I say.
“What’s your name?” he says.
“David,” I say, and we shake hands. “What’s yours?” I ask, and he tells me.
He says, “Sorry, man. I didn’t mean to get you involved in this.”
“No, it’s fine,” I say.
“You go sit down,” he says. “I’m fine.”
“No, I’ll stay here,” I say. “I’m not doing anything.”
He sighs. “Am I bleeding?”
“Your cheek there,” I say. “I think there’s a spot on the back of your neck too. Turn around. No, the other way. Yeah, right under your ear there. There’s a little cut.”
He groans. “Am I bruised?”
“Like, the whole side of your face.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I can feel it. Man, how am I going to explain this?”
I grimace sympathetically. He talks through the circumstances that led to the initial collision again.
I grin at him. “You’re tough, man. You stood right up to that guy. You didn’t take any shit from him.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Damn it. His first punch got me right in the jaw there. That really messed me up. I would have done a lot better if it weren’t for that. If I wasn’t drunk it would have been a different story.”
I’m thinking that he acquitted himself pretty well, considering that the other guy was three times his size and came away with a face covered in blood.
“Sorry to get you involved in this, man,” he says.
“No, it’s fine,” I say.
“You should go sit down,” he says. “Relax.”
“All right.” We shake hands again. I pat his shoulder. “Stay strong, man.”
As I make my way back to my seat, I pass the conductor, who says, “Thanks for the assist, man.”
Twenty minutes later, as the train is pulling into White Plains, Bob appears in the aisle beside me.
“David,” he says. “Thanks again, man.” He shakes my hand.
“Yeah, no problem,” I tell him.
He makes his way out onto the platform. The doors close, and the train starts moving again.
Episode 46 of my science fiction podcast is now up at io9. In this show we interview evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, about working with Dave McKean, being friends with Douglas Adams, and whether a human can mate with a chimp. Then stick around after the interview as John and I discuss atheism and science fiction.