Friday, December 27, 2013

Foto Filler Friday

It's the last post of the year so what better time for some filler?

And what better time for Batman to smack his bitch up?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas! Buy My Books!

Amazon royalties are enough to pay taxes but not enough to pay rent. Let's get those numbers up, people!

A kick in the teeth to the modern vampire novel! Fiend is the story of the unapologetically monstrous Tomás Martinez de Vasco, from his early nights terrorizing the Continent to his globe-spanning depredations to his centuries-long obsession with his own estranged creation, Anna — all delivered in a breathless monologue to his psychiatrist. Fast, funny and mean!

Read the excerpts:

Life and Undeath

Barbary Nights

The True Story of Jeannot

A Very Red October

Goin' Out West

Available through Amazon, Smashwords, and CreateSpace!

* * *

The first female presidency hits America with such force that no one could ignore it even if they tried. Madame President is determined to protect the freedoms of all Real Americans - as she defines them. Follow a confused young man, a desperate girl, a paranoid reporter, and a superstar pastor with a terrible secret as they try to survive an all too possible world where homosexuality is a disease, abortion is a crime, and Jewish citizens find "emigration notices" in the mail.

Read the excerpts:


Mr. Cornflower

The Sanctity of Life

Pray the Gay Away

A Flu

Available through Amazon and Smashwords!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Games Without Gameplay

I have in-laws now. In-laws with a whole lot of disposable income. Because "disposable" is exactly what money is, if spent on a Day One edition of the Xbox One - which I shall henceforth refer to as the Xbone.

Being family - of a sort - I got to sit in on it and even play a little. And man, do the new launch titles suck. Dead Rising, Call of Duty, Ryse, all very shiny and impressive and absolutely devoid of actual gameplay.

Okay, I'm not being fair. I only watched the new Dead Rising and as zombie killing mayhem goes, it looks pretty fun. The game never stopped so CGI actors could try to emote at each other and there was a road sign that fired lightning. And I didn't even see the new Call of Duty but I feel safe in declaring it to be linear and clunky as its own PR campaign has proudly proclaimed they didn't change a damn thing about the formula.

Whereas this formula should never be changed...
I did get to play Ryse though. As much as one can play Ryse, in between the cut scenes and quick-time events and scripted turret sections. I managed to waddle around like an angry turtle for two minutes. And climb a thing. I'm sure it has a deep and complex story framed by its pretty skyboxes, but I only had a few minutes in between beers so found the hacking and slashing of this purported hack and slash game shockingly minimal.

But it did give me an idea for a new metric by which we can quantify video games: The Half-Life Minute! Start a game, any game, and count how many minutes between when the game starts and when you get to actually do anything. If there's a title or loading screen, it doesn't apply for these purposes - though a cutscene does. Additionally, playing the game can be anything from jumping on top of goombahs to pressing "X" to not die. The only requirement is some form of input from the player.

Now compare that number to how many minutes it takes after starting Half-Life to get to the gameplay. You may notice that everything but old-school platformers and Doom immediately fail this little test. That's okay though, you can't expect every sequel and movie tie-in to achieve Half-Life perfection. It just serves as a handy baseline - the closer a game gets to the zero minute mark, the better it is at getting you to the whole damn reason you're playing a game in the first place.

And in its defense, Ryse gets you to the action pretty quickly. After a few minutes showing off the Xbone's processor with lots of gaudy Roman imagery, it drops you right into a big bloody barbarian invasion! So you can waddle around and stab things.

However, the Half-Life Minute has more applications than just game start time. Let's say we count the minutes from when we first start the game to when we're interrupted by a cut scene. Believe it or not there is indeed a cut scene in the original Half-Life!

After about five hours of play, depending on how l33t you are. And this doesn't apply to set pieces, like Half-Life pioneered and like you find littered across modern shooters, because while a set piece is scripted it doesn't stop you from running off to a corner and trying to find the secret portal to the old-school sprite dimension or just twirling around in a circle trying to make the textures pop when you stop.

Let's be generous and not count the first cut scene in Ryse. It doesn't help much because after a minute of stabbing, we're back to watching the Jerry Bruckheimer cut of Gladiator. And it goes on for so long I was able to go grab another beer without missing any gameplay, so let's use the Half-Life Minute for one final test: how many minutes of gameplay between cutscenes.

This one will require a little more quantification. Let's have our variable M be the Half-Life Minute, and our variable R be the risible Ryse. Starting from that five-hours-in cut scene in Half-Life, how long until you have to sit there and let the game talk at you again? Again, depending on how fast you blow through alien critters and inexplicable ninjas, anywhere from forty minutes to four hours. So let's just say M = 100.

Now for Ryse. Again, we'll skip over the whole opening as it's mostly exposition anyway. Going from when the game actually actually begins, with Marius seeing his whole rich Patrician family stuffed in the fridge, we have a grand total of... Well, about five minutes of stabbing between every movie break. And the movies last about as long, or longer. And there was gonna be an equation of these two variables but math jokes are not funny.

Let's try another take - how many minutes between gameplay being interrupted by instructions on how to play the game? Or so you can hit one button to trigger a scripted finishing move that's so much spectacle you can set the controller down and grab some popcorn?

Now I'm just picking on Ryse but my God - I have never played a game so ploddingly slow, uninteractive, and so dominated by expository cut scenes that they could've cut out all the gameplay and just released the damned thing as a movie! And this is a launch title for the Xbone? This is the face of next-gen!?

"It's-a me! Marius!"
Ryse did have one redeeming quality though - a gladiator mode where you waddle around in your Grecco-Roman pull-ups, stabbing waves of barbarians and starting fires to the cheers of the debauched Roman crowd. No cutscenes, no turret sections, just waddle and stab. If you play "Yackety Sax" in the background, it's actually fun.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Fiend Friday: Get Yer Xmas Fang On!

A friendly reminder from the good people and elves here at VectorPress to go buy Fiend from these wonderful online retailers!




And if you don't know what Fiend is, you clearly haven't been paying attention!

Life and Undeath

Barbary Nights

The True Story of Jeannot

A Very Red October

Goin' Out West


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Viva Extropia

What would happen if a black hole formed in your ass? It's a fun little question to ponder - what with tidal forces and the curvature of spacetime interacting with the curvature of yo' big fat ass - but it's strictly theoretical. A black hole is not going to form in your ass, so while the question is interesting it's utterly meaningless.

Similarly, there's Singularity Sky by Charles Stross. I picked it up in the library while looking for more Dan Simmons to drool over and while it has some pretty glaring issues I want to talk about the fun stuff first.

Set some billions of billions of miles from Earth in a future where the far future had its posthuman way with the past, a backwater planet ruled over by a star-spanning empire gets a surprise uplift from visiting space cyborgs. And while that's the big picture of what happens it never feels as confusing because Stross has mastered that most elusive skill of speculative fiction writers - he only tells the reader what they need to know of his ginormous imaginary world to appreciate this one specific story. For the most part... There's some dips into infodumps later on but they're in the context of characters explaining themselves to other characters so it goes down a little easier.

What stands out - and is quite clever - is how Singularity Sky contrasts two of the most popular subgenres of science fiction: the transhuman singularity - in which increases i n computing power turn everyone into immortal Olympians - and the battles of deep space navies, where all the malarkey of the Age of Sail gets recycled in spaceship form. The heroes come from a transhumanist Earth where everyone is augmented to Hell and back and super science has made traditional hierarchies at best quaint... But then they're dropped into the universe of Honor Harrington taken to its logical and terrible extreme. Royalty, misogyny, and cultivated ignorance rule the New Republic, complicating matters for the two leads as they wish to bone without first getting married. They have other motivations of course - plot motivations - but the romantic comedy aspect is a little overt...

Fortunately, that all gets shoved aside once The Festival arrives. A really brilliant creation - alien and familiar all at once, wreaking havoc without understanding, laughing god children like in the opening sequence of Robot Carnival. It drops super-science replicators down on the feudal backwater I mentioned earlier, turning the strict social order inside out and terrifying the leadership back on the homeworld enough to launch a time-jumping expeditionary fleet so that the outer space cyber-psychosis doesn't get out of hand and inspire something crazy like women's suffrage. The heroes are along fro the ride, providing snarky commentary as a traditional Space Navy encounters a force that operates on more modern understanding of physics.

But what holds Singularity Sky back is that it is at heart evangelical writing. It's trying to win converts to a particular Theory of Everything - and not the fun physics sort. Rather, the book and Stross himself present an argument for a sort of post-scarcity technolibertarianism which while appealing relies too much on fantastical hardware that doesn't exist and so is currently untenable. Whatever message could have been conveyed about the freedom of information and how an informed citizenry terrifies governments - like how access to Wikipedia has smashed the two party system - is lost in so much speculation on the level of what I opened this post with.

Stross also fires off standard libertarian boilerplate, like taxation being slavery, as a matter of course. Now maybe that's the way it feels to him, living under the tyranny of a functional and free health care system, but us rugged individualists in the free market frontiers are more likely to get squeezed dry by a private bank - or our own employers - than by a public institution.

It's a very 1984 thesis in a brave new world where 1984 never happened. And it's a real shame because Stross has a better prose style than Alastair Reynolds. His ideas are just bollocks.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Fanfiction Done Right

You should recognize that word if you've spent any amount of time on the internet looking up your favorite films or TV shows. Fanfiction is exactly that, stories written by the fans. And it is with rare exception the most godawful writing in the English language.

Dracula, currently airing on NBC is one of those exceptions. It's not an adaptation and it goes above and beyond a reimagining - Vlad Tepes arrives in London under the guise of Alexander Grayson, in league with Abraham Van Helsing and assisted by the brilliant Black Renfield in a grand revenge plot against the Ordo Dracul.

And he has a katana. Because katanas.

This is the stuff of steampunk paperbacks but it works surprisingly well here, thanks mainly to casting. Jon Rhys Meyers looks every part the superior vampire lord and, as anyone who's seen The Tudors should know, can work up a head of crazy so good - and hammy - that you forget he's usually the smallest person in the room. Especially alongside Nonso Anozie as Renfield, Dracula-Grayson's stoic and stubbornly loyal dogsbody, who carry's himself with a stern and silent dignity no matter how much Anglo racism is thrown his way.

Because he's smarter than all of 'em put together. And has better teeth.
Instead of coming out of his ancestral backwater to menace Englishwomen, like in Stoker's novel, this Dracula comes across more as the Byronic hero, "implacable in revenge yet capable of deep and strong affection." He hates the Ordo Dracul and would like very much to rip and tear and impale them to the last man now, but Van Helsing - the real diabolical genius here - urges caution. So his own revenge can be that much more complete. And Dracula himself is a little distracted by Mina Murray, again the reincarnation of his centuries dead wife like in Coppola's film - when not bedding the Ordo Dracul vampire slayer played by the unfortunately named Victoria Smurfit who is  a cross between Buffy, a femme fatale, and a whole mess of plastic surgery.

The female mantis, after copulation, removes the male's head...

Aside from vampires and character names, this Dracula has damn near nothing to do with theoriginal novel. And that's a good thing. Stoker's Dracula, while a seminal work of gothic adventure fiction, has been adapted to screen and television and comic book more than any other intellectual property. It's reached the point where people who've never even read the novel can recognize the characters, the plot, even the odd line or two like the one concerning children of the night. Dracula (2013) is a welcome change from all that, even when it can get a tad silly at times.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Fiend Friday: Goin' Out West

I marched ever westward after... No more stomach for war or soldiers or whatever may have crawled out of that shallow grave. I followed a trail of displaced peasants for a league or so, picking at their elderly and infirm in the night. Helped to disguise my predations but Coña Maria - how thin and oily their blood tasted! How relieved I was upon waking one night to smell that thick odor of civilization on the breeze!

Besancon wouldn't have the peasants - at least I assume so, as so many remained outside the walls. But walls, dear Doctor, are but an inconvenience for me - I bounded over them that first night! Had to cross some water first, leading to the happy discovery that I can't drown. After thrashing around for a bit...

Ah! A French city! But still an Imperial city - un Ville Libre d'Imperial, as they were so proud of declaring, even to each other. Frequently. Though quite different from all those other imperial cities I'd known before, both day and night. Much cleaner for one, much more varied peoples - more flavorful, if you will permit me Doctor. I took a room on the Rue de Savoie, overlooking Batten Bridge to the east and the Citadel with its gleaming white walls - gleaming even in blackest night! - visible from the roof.

I am rather fond of clambering over rooftops, I must admit...

A good house with a good proprietress. She left me to a small room near the top and even supplied me with heavy curtains upon request. She never asked why I should need them, nor why I never appeared downstairs until after dark and returned just before dawn. A rarity - an old woman who does not go about sticking her nose into the business of others!

I shared the house with some other drifters and vagabonds. Madame Boulin, the proprietress, held no prejudice against race or creed so long as there was hard coin in the bargain. A delightfully mercenary old woman - she also offered hot food and mending and the services of her sickly daughter Amanda. All for a price!

She needed to be so enterprising. Counting myself, only half a dozen boarders ever called that heap of a house a home. Always felt like more though, what with Amanda's own children getting underfoot. Three of the buggers with a fourth that thankfully ran away. All from different fathers too, their mother being such a loyal and hard worker...

The two longest boarders - besides myself - were an Abbe by the name of Valenod and an old grump calling himself Herr Ganz. Now Valenod, he was a local boy - went to seminary right there in the Citadel! Ganz was, naturally, a German gentleman and all around pain in the arse. Always grumbling over this or that, always blocking the narrow stairwell, always engaging that young Valenod in some blithering argument over religion.

Oh, Ganz was a Lutheran! And proud of it, for whatever reason... I saw him only ever enjoy himself when either haranguing the young abbe or stuffing Madame's sausages in his mouth. "You priests!" he would say around fat gibbets. "You dress yourselves in gold and claim to speak for the humble Christ! And then you... You eat him!"

That really put Ganz in a fury. Not just eat - understand, Doctor, those Lutherans all had a bumpkin's understanding of theology. They took all the talk of transubstantiation and sacre sange literally. Poor Ganz believed little Abbe Valenod shat out Christ every Sunday!

The Abbe took it all in stride, though. He'd sit there at Madame Boulin's table, withering the old German's condemnations and spittle, and hit right back - "But how can you yourself claim to speak with authority on such matters? How can any common man?"

"Christ speaks to my heart," Ganz would intone with what I'm sure he intended as pious humility but always sounded like sanctimonious pajer. He had the provincial's confidence in his own senses and experiences and would have none of the educated Abbe's high-minded and scholarly arguments.

"'For since according to the definition of the Stoics, wisdom is nothing else than to be governed by reason,'" the Abbe intoned, his voice light and mocking. "And on the contrary Folly, to be given up to the will of our passions, that the life of man might not be altogether disconsolate and hard to away with, of how much more passion than reason has Jupiter composed us?"

"'Faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace!'" Ganz fired back. "'So sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times. To be a Christian, you must pluck out the eye of Reason!'"

Hang them both - that's how I felt. Thank their Christ I had no need to join them at the dinner table - or don't thank Him, come to think of it. Madame Boulin didn't mind the ruckus though and Amanda...

Well, she had too much of a fixation with me to be really bothered... Truth be told, she wasn't my type. A plucked chicken with hair like old straw, though she couldn't have been more than twenty-five. How she'd survived squatting out those little beasts of hers... well, they likely wouldn't live to adulthood. Not all of them...

Amanda dotted on me, as much as she could... Laundering my shirts or polishing my boots or greeting me every evening as I descended to the parlor with a cup of chocolate... How difficult it was to throw surreptitiously, always under the eager eyes of that eager and unwanted admirer! Thank God for her screaming brats, distracting her long enough for me to to fling it out an open window or - a last resort! - swig it all down, to be wretched up later.

Though I really couldn't blame the girl... All those children out of wedlock... A pimp for a mother... And no eligible bachelors in sight save for Ganz - who'd much rather prattle on about religion!

How that old German would fill everyone's ears with the Protestant line! With the tyranny of Catholicism! Never mind Bohemia and Breitenfeld - nothing was settled! I once broached that particular subject to Ganz, who got a glistening look in his eyes and declared, "I rode with Gustavus himself when I was young! There was a true champion of God!"

When he was young! Doctor, understand the shock this was to me! Though time had passed since that first night in the church - so much time - I'd taken no notice of it. I looked then as I did on that first night - as I do now! - but had never before taken notice of the fact.

How it thrilled me! Again, I had no more understanding of my condition than my own experience. So I did not expect to be somehow beyond the vagaries of age! That night, I danced across rooftops and when swooping down on a pair who left a tavern too late I had a smile on my face and a twinkle in my eye!

It's not the last time transports of joy have compounded my misfortunes though... Had I kept a more level head, I might have paid closer attention to what bits of real news managed to worm its way through the Besancon streets to Madame Boulin's table. Imagine my surprise one night, while scampering across the Besancon rooftops, to see far out beyond the city walls and encamped army!

I'd seen enough such encampments - been encamped enough myself! - to recognize a siege in preparation. I resolved there and then to flee Besancon as fast as possible! Though a task easier said than done, I soon learned, as that army had already put a lockdown on all travel to and from the city - therefore my old trick of smuggling myself in a peasants caravan was right out. Horses wouldn't come near me and I'd seen enough of the open countryside on the way in to fear being smote to ashes by the dawn should I just leg it.

A bothersome development... And then the artillery started...

I was roused by the plucked chicken - in the middle of the day! The terrible light of the noonday sun beating against my heavy curtains! The girl shook me awake with pitiful pleas of "Oh, Monsieur Vasco! You must get out! Now!"

I muttered some oath in my native tongue to convince her to piss off. Little idiot didn't understand a word of Spanish though...

"The cannons!" she persisted. "They are battering down the city! We must all take shelter in the cellar!"

And for emphasis, one of our neighbors on the narrow Rue de Savoie was smashed to pieces just outside my window.

That got me going! Just enough - I dragged and scraped my way downstairs after the silly girl, recoiling at the blinding, searing sunlight that poured in from the open windows. I must have smelled like burnt bacon when I reached the cellar but either it didn't show or no one could see my fresh scourging in the gloom...

"Damned Catholics..." Ganz muttered, sitting heavily on a sack of grain that looked ready to burst either from its contents of his great self-importance. "Damned damned damned..."

"Leave off the Catholics for once," Abbe Valenod called to him from one of the few chairs, next to a lopsided table with a lone candle. "This is all political! The king wants the city for his dowry or some such..."

"Then why's he going about smashing it?" demanded Ganz. And he answered himself, "A plot is why! A Catholic plot to seize a free city!"

And on and on and on... I retreated to the darkest corner I could find and huddled next to a molding cask of wine. I shut my eyes, seeking some peace or at the very least distraction in my dreams...

And awoke to a night buzzing far away with activity but utterly silent in this little cellar. Ganz and Valenod had mercifully tired themselves out, arguing over which of them was to blame for the siege, and slept peacefully. With great snoring from Ganz... Madam Boulin had a mat for herself and her daughter, the children clustered about them like piglets in a hutch.

Stretching the stiffness from my limbs, I climbed the stairs to the house proper, hoping to find someplace new to spend my days, someplace more private... Until I reached the door and found it would not budge.

The cannons! They'd smashed the entire Rue de Savoie! A collapsed wall or some such no doubt held the door from the other side and the only windows in the cellar were too small even for Amanda's little brats to scurry through. We were trapped!

Oh no! See the exciting and bloody conclusion in paperback or the ereader of your choice!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Infinite Space, Infinite Terror

I have a soft spot for Alastair Reynolds. His prose are about as organic as a lead pipe but he's got a strikingly original imagination and a penchant for the cosmic horror vibe first pioneered by Lovecraft. So in between reading "serious" books, I've been going through what works of his I could find in the Brooklyn library. It's slim pickings but I got hold of a novella collection that's well worth your time - Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days.

The first concerns an expedition to some alien construct. Dubbed "Blood Spire" by the rich eccentric leading the rest, it's a towering puzzle box floating just off the surface that sprays out the pieces of those who can't keep up with it's mind-warping math problems. Remember that bit in the film Contact where they had to think in entirely different dimensions to make any sense of the wormhole schematics? Yeah, it's like that but more obtuse.

Narrated by the rich eccentric's friend, things take a fairly standard course of delving deeper into the alien labyrinth, finding ever more difficult problems, and experiencing ever more creatively horrible dismemberments. Narrator and Rich Guy resort to drastic physical augmentation to not only survive but to think faster, to react quicker, to fit through the ever narrowing hallways of Blood Spire until they literally resemble diamond dogs.

And to what ultimate purpose? What cyclopean secrets does Blood Spire hold? Hell if I know, 'cause that's not what this is really about. It's about the very human desire to explore and learn taken to obsessive extreme. How much would you sacrifice to learn the capital "T" Truth of things? How much would you mortify your own flesh to get at a secret so strongly kept? Diamond Dogs is Reynolds asking these questions, writing beyond the usual limits of his genre to touch on deeply personal and human themes.

Turquoise Days, in contrast, comes across as weaker. Set on a planet of endless oceans and continent-sized intelligent algae, it follows a young woman who finds herself caught up in a whole mess of political intrigues and outright invasion when all she really wants to do is study sea life. One sea life in particular - the alien algae that ate her sister.

Well, not "ate" really. The pattern-jugglers - which you Revelation Space fans will remember - have a curious habit of absorbing certain humans that prove overly receptive to their "communion" practice of interlocking consciousnesses. Big Sis was just such a human, leading Little Sis to fear she will come to the same fate... and secretly longing to. Since people absorbed by the pattern-jugglers don't exactly stay gone, their neural pathways preserved inside those massive islands of algae.

"We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses... and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever." ~ H.P. Lovecraft

It's actually quite touching and it's what links this with the much more overt and visceral Diamond Dogs. Reynolds, despite writing the hardest of hard sci-fi, never neglects the human core of his stories. On the contrary, these very familiar desires for love and understanding are all too human, all too applicable to our daily lives trapped on this boring blue rock. That's what makes Reynolds one of the best in the game today, despite his stiff prose.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Fiend Friday: A Very Red October

The following is an excerpt from my novel Fiend, available in paperback and on the ereader of your choice!

The train soon arrived in Petrograd and my senses reeled at the glut of fresh blood! How things do change with the centuries... The backwater of Russia I'd heard of in the War had sprung into a sprawling city! Modern industry smoking alongside those shimmering, oriental churches. All the intricate splendors of Paris - covered in soot and perpetually cold.

Carriages and carts filled the cobbled streets, surrounded by all manner of peasant and burgher - though the high born, as always, did not deign to mix with them. Even that sewage stink I remembered seemed to be absent, or covered over by the heavy clouds of burned coal...

Ack, that coal! It fired the engines of industry, drove progress, and clouded the blood! At first a harsh flavor, like the clear vodka or vit so adored by Swedes... But soon I tasted nothing but acrid and ashes in the common people I fed from. I endeavored to find myself some higher society! Some cleaner vintage!

Those Russians didn't keep to the farmer's schedule - thank God! Like Moors, they kept up passed midnight at all these little clubs, tossing back tea and champagne in equal measure if they could afford it, common wine if not. Though getting into such clubs proved difficult at first, the man at the door turning away any rough looking characters. Wearing the functional clothes of a Tartar and having been so long in the barren East of that wide empire, I looked very rough indeed...

But what luck I had, one evening, while trying to talk my way into yet another club full, a prospective patron should happen upon me!

"Monsieur, sil-vous-plais!" I begged the doorman. "I am so cold and thirsty! Only a few moments to warm myself!" Not entirely a lie...

He wasn't having it, of course... Or didn't understand French... And I was weighing the risk of storming the place, how much blood I could take before soldiers arrived... when some young aristocrat swaddled in more elegant furs than the woman on his arm came bounding over, beside himself with joy!

"Oh, francais! Magnifique! Bienvenue!" he squealed with more excitement than coherence. "Pavel Pavlovitch, let this man in! Such a wonder!"

And lo and behold, the big brick of a doorman let me pass! The inside of that club greeted me with warmth, tobacco, and the heady aroma of alcohol flooded blood. I had to express my gratitude to this young fop and his lady - but before I could again open my mouth, he was on me with a million questions in broken French.

"What is your name? Where are you from? However did you learn French?"

"Tomás... The West... The Army..." I replied, when I could get a word in.

"Haha! How droll! I simply must show you to everyone!" And not letting me a moment to acclimate to the warmth and welcome of the club, he dragged me into a thick knot of other dandies - all in fine suits or even uniforms, all puffing away at cigars while sipping heavy brown liquors, all sporting the same miniscule style of mustache. As I said, Doctor - Russia had no want of princes in those days.

"Felix Felixivitch!" one of these young gentlemen declared upon seeing us. "What's this business, bringing a Tartar into the club!"

"Ah, but he's an educated Oriental!" Felix explained. "He speaks perfect French!"

Those Russian princes were quite tickled by that - an oriental speaking French! Because what little Gitano features I inherited from my mother were oriental enough for those featherbrains...

They crowded about, lobbing their own clumsy French at me, and twittering like tickled chambermaids as I answered fluently. Ah, how the mighty do fall! How aristocracy degenerates! To think these mincing mariconas of Petrograd could have ever shared blood with the likes of Gustavus! Of le Roi-Soleil! Of mi Alfonso sangre! 

And my benefactor, Prince Felix, just basked in the reflected glory. He was that sort with so much wealth that he quickly grows bored of everything and soon needs something - anything! - new. Claiming me for himself after all the other princes had gotten their amusement, he sat me down by the fire and talked my ear off.
"But my dear fellow - how did you ever come to be dressed so... so... Ghastly!?" he asked.

"I was set upon by bandits," I explained, hoping such things still happened with enough frequency to sound plausible. "They took everything - my money, my boots, even my good waistcoat."

Oh, that struck a chord with the young prince. His heart bled for me, he wept for me - really! I was embarrassed for him... "We must see to it that you're returned to your station," he said with the sudden determination of the fickle. "No gentleman should be made to skulk about in those..." and he waved a disgusted hand.

I appreciated it of course. So appreciated it that I snuck off when some goon in a hussar's uniform came over so that he and Prince Felix might be alone to gossip about the strange foreigner. It proved fortuitous timing - I ran across the prince's pretty little lady, whom I led deep into the dark and smoke of the club where I could help myself to her pretty little neck...

Though I did not abandon Felix Felixovitch that evening. Sated, my mind a whirl with that youthful, aristocratic blood, I returned to find him at the fire. "You have shown such charity to me," I said to him in the finest French I could muster. "That it shames me I must ask of you... I have recently arrived and as I explained, I was robbed of all my possessions..."

"Say no more, my brilliant friend!" And he rose to give me an unexpected, unwelcome embrace. "You may stay at my home for however long you wish! It would be my honor to host such a distinguished traveler!"

Nastinka didn't object either - and she mattered more to Prince Felix than his actual wife. I met her briefly, a sad and spongy creature, like that English girl likely grew into when her father finally married her off... She greeted me tersely upon our arrival, some few hours before dawn, having grown so accustomed to her husband being out all night, returning with strangers, keeping Nastinka in her own wing of the great mansion overlooking the Moika river.

That mansion, Doctor! I'd seen the bold projects of Louis XIV and they looked like so much driftwood in comparison! The rococo walls, the pillars, the gold filigree running across every corner - Prince Felix put almost as much effort into decorating as he did into dressing himself. And more than he gave almost any other endeavor - he tried engaging me constantly in French but it was like trying to carry on a conversation with a child just dropped on his head. Though I noticed he always adressed me as "tu" rather than "vous" - a small slight, if he even knew the distinction...

Nastinka proved far better company - and not just for her sweet blood. Well, related to that... While so many of those I drink from are struck dumb by the experience, their memories a blur, this Nastinka remembered exactly what occurred that first night in the club... and didn't object. On the contrary, she enjoyed it! Because, as I soon learned, Nastinka's role as mistress to the prince involved very little in terms of traditional intimacies...

Felix beat her, Doctor. Not just with the back of his hand, though that he did quite often. But rather with riding crops and belts and even buggy whip! Nastinka showed me the scars from that one, laced across her back. Oh, not to plead for any sympathy or mercy - she was proud! At enduring such brutality! She wore her petticoats unconscionably tight, so as to feel the material grind against her sore flesh!

The Prince did not lay with her as a man, though. He battered her, knocked her to the ground, had her crawl about naked on all fours - but never did he take her as one would expect... Such tenderness he reserved only for his fellow princes. He even tried to bring me into such confidence on nights when he'd drunk enough champagne to choke an elephant - "Tomás, you scoundrel! You rogue! Kiss me!"

I turned him down every time but still he let me stay on... He dressed me in the latest suits, bought me the finest hats, paraded me before all those clucking Russian aristocrats - I was his star!

I could have stayed much longer than I did, though it's probably for the best I left eventually... While frequenting the clubs with Prince Felix and his pretty blood mop, I couldn't help overhearing the politics of the day - "Can you believe what the rabble did this time?" was a common opener. All the young and wealthy would gather round the speaker, clucking like old village women at some latest outrage committed by the peasantry. If they weren't rallying for democracy they were deserting at the front. If neither of those things, they dressed too shabby. If nothing else, they did not cringe to the speaker's satisfaction when he went out riding. If only a small slight the Dutch had been such a trifle for King Philip...

But this was all whining, Doctor. No different than I'd heard from a thousand different men in as many taverns and nations and languages. I didn't take note until my host began to make the same complaint... But on one peasant in particular... 

"A drunkard! A rogue! A blackguard who chases good Christian women!" is how it began, if anyone else mentioned the man. If not, Prince Felix usually found a segue into the subject - such as the drunkenness.
"He's got the Tsarina wrapped around his crooked finger!" the Felix said to the other princes. "And worst of all, he's so vulgar! His every aspect is an obscenity - especially his boots!"

The Tsar was not really their father. A curious Russian affectation, addressing all those in authority in familial terms...

But Felix would stir up the outrage in that pampered lot. They cried out in agreement - "Quite so!" and "All his fault!" and "Something must be done!" Understand they were just as vulgar and obscene and drunkenly - arguably more so! What set their blood boiling and their little mustaches twitching was that a common muzhik should share in the same pleasures.

You know what I think, Doctor? That mincing maricona was jealous! He'd put the moves on the old muzhik and been rebuffed, been thrown aside for someone younger and prettier... and certainly more interesting!
So the villain had to die! For the good of the Motherland and - more importantly - for Felix Felixovich's wounded pride! He'd show those muzhiks not to rebuff his clumsy advances!

Muzhiks... If one subject united those tottering fools it was contempt for the peasantry. They wouldn't even deign to violate such scurvy beasts - Nastinka was herself a countess! All that good breeding and upbringing, that fine foreign education, all so some prancing pajero could plant welts across her arse!

That's what the good blood could expect. But those muzhiks - oh, to be born in such a low state was surely a sign of moral turpitude or punishment from God. Those dvoryanin - dumber than Calvinists!

In all fairness to Prince Felix, I never met the Muzhik in Question myself. We moved in different circles - rather I made it a point to move out of the Prince's circle when he indulged his pastime of peasant bashing. He would accompany his hated enemy to low public houses full of beer and sausage, where after a few pints the Prince would try and pick a fight with any man who appeared to his boggled eyes. A slight wisp of a man, more accustomed to servants and cross-dressing than rough labor, and relying on his privileged status to keep the stout peasants pulling their punches...

On one of these outings, he had a discussion of sorts with his nemesis. He confessed it to me later - "The man will make our Father surrender!" His mustache curled at the ignoble thought.
I just nodded, not seeing the harm in such a course. Having seen the remnants of their Grand Army scraping by in the Petrograd gutters...

"I am resolved to put an end to this, mes amis," he continued, more in a fire than he'd been over that English carpet. "For the honor of the Empire! By the blood of my noble ancestors!"

"Yes, yes... Honor and blood..." I nodded along, thinking how I might pass some days outside the house...
As the Prince set about his task with all the dignity of a French dramatist, I relocated to a flat as far on the other side of Petrograd as I could get. Nastinka joined me, preferring the relative tenderness of my Thirst to the sharp hand of the Prince...

I wouldn't call it a happy time... But I did find some sort of contentment, looking out over the sooty streets and bleeding that little countess. I could trust her to keep the windows covered while I slept away the daylight - and not just because of the enthralling force of my feedings. She cleaved to me without reservation...

Free of that cluster of hens calling themselves an elite, I found the common Russians much more to my liking. Those muzhiks had survived Huns and Mongols and Napoleon - and went marching off to the Western front for more! Fine soldiers - even the women!

And mixing down among those muzhiks, I heard familiar rumblings... The same that rose from the slave quarters in Hispaniola, that grumble that soon turns into a full-throated roar -

"Why this slaughter? Is Germany not our brother?"

"Where is the common right? Where is the social contract!?"

"The worse, the better!"

Pamphlets made the rounds in those grimy public houses... Pamphlets declaring war on the old order, demanding the high be brought low, the leveling of all things... So much like what the Protestant rabble used to spout against the Church, what the Jacobins used to grumble in the Antilles, what the enslaved Negros grumbled back...

I recognized this movement of the people, naturalmente... I had a final warning of such when some months later, I ran into Felix Felixovitch at one of those public houses he stooped to patronize.

"Ah, mes amis Tomás!" he declared in his awful French, his eyes glowing with an entirely new madness.
"Your grace," I replied. Maybe I could distract him with a shiny bauble while I beat a hasty retreat...
Throwing his arm around my shoulder with more familiarity than was comfortable, he whispered conspiratorially, "I have news... The great work I told you about... It's done!"

Few things surprise me these nights... Fewer surprised me then, which just shows how much I thought I knew... My mouth all but hit the floor at Felix's confession! I had to turn away fast, lest anyone catch a glimpse of my distinctly sharp teeth. "You mean to tell me -"

"Indeed!" The Prince looked beside himself in ecstasy. "You should have been there! We tried poisoning him, but the devil proved too resilient! We stabbed him, shot him, beat him, threw him out the window! He finally died in the river!"

Awfully tough, those muzhiks...

"Now you'll see," he continued. "Now they'll all see! Russia will not bow to those Germans or anyone else! Our Father shall sweep the board!"

It didn't happen that way, of course...

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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

It's Raining Spam!

Amazon is making the dreams of reality-averse tech dweebs come true just in time for Christmas!

"And look! I brought cookies!"

Not this Christmas of course, but one soon to come. Amazon honcho Bezos expects his little octocopter to be delivering DVD sets across America in about five to seven years, a stary-eyed fantasy echoed by every pinhead from Gizmodo to Forbes.

The closest to skepticism any of the big name press gets is fretting over whether or not the government squares or the luddite prols will go in for this cool new thing. Because that's what really matters when converting sophisticated military hardware to commercial use - ad slogans. What the well paid pundits don't want to talk about is the biggest problem with this scheme -


That most boring of military sciences. The thing Lee slept through at West Point, along with all the other romantic dunderheads who signed on with the pro-slavery side. And who were thoroughly stomped by Ulysses S. Grant - 'cuz he aced the logistics class and went on to make sure his troops had enough food, enough shoes, and more than enough bullets.

And logistics is what makes drones a superb weapon system and a terrible commercial delivery system.

Let's start with the obvious - how do drones go from point A to point B? They ain't programmed for it - not yet, thank Christ - and so there's this little control room full of monitors and keyboards and joysticks, like a bleeding edge video game cave from the '80s. Two operators steer the little drone through the sky, worrying about all the little things any other pilot worries about, except for dying in a fiery crash.

Outside the control room, you've got a ground crew. They clean and refuel the drone, make sure its flaps and engine work properly, all the same stuff as your local mechanic except that one little mistake means the drone plunges out of the air, halfway to point B. Or maybe the ground crew does everything right and it still plunges out of the air due to inclement weather.

All these logistical concerns cost money. Not even close to the millions wasted on the same for jet fighters - that are even more fragile, less agile, and built around a squishy human - but still more than some scale model enthusiast at the park could ever hope to afford. And, as explained, even with everything going right a drone can still miss its target or crash. It's used anyway because the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. For starters, ya don't lose a very expensive USAF officer if it gets shot down.

But that's war, not business. Assuming all the legal and marketing hurdles are cleared by the octocopter, Amazon is looking at a steep premium to do what guys in vans can do with more reliability and much less money. I've got nothing against robots doing all the menial work - so we can all kick back and just plain kick this "honest days work" nonsense but that's another rant - though I just can't see that Amazon Air will ever make it off the ground. Too expensive, too many moving parts, too much work when there's already a viable alternative.

Not that the tech dweebs care. If it's possible, who cares if it's useful?