“Of Dice and Men” by David M. Ewalt

David Ewalt was a gamer when he was young, but as he got older he stopped gaming. He thought it was what an adult was supposed to do. He took up up journalism and left the gaming behind. Role-playing games made their way back into his life.

Ewalt intersperses his relationship with gaming with the history of Dungeons and Dragons. From its historic antecedents to the pre-release of D&D, 5th Edition.

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Even though D&D isn’t my system, Ewalt’s telling of its history immersed me. As the book went on, I wanted to jump into these games, to play in these worlds, to make them my own.

It probably helped that I read this in audio. Ewalt read the majority of the book—the action scenes were read by a more dramatic actor. The author’s narration and the actor’s dramatic readings worked for me. Maybe more than if I read the book visually.

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With its focus on D&D, the book was a rough start for me. My first RPG was Top Secret S.I, followed by GURPS. I only came to D&D years later when a friend of mine ran a house-ruled variant of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D). This friend happened to be a railroading sort of DM and not the best person outside of gaming. You can see why D&D has bad connotations for me.

But this book came at the same time as my return to gaming and my exposure to OSR. Even if I have quibbles with Ewalt—the hard statements he makes about who gamers are contradicts my own experience and the dramatic actor gets a little hammy at times—his passion for the game and its history is contagious.

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While reading this book I was also looking heavily into OSR. That reading fueled this reading and vice versa. I still haven’t found anyone to play Old-School D&D or its descendants with, but I have returned to other RPGs with friends and family.

And, when I finished with the book, I immediately recommended it to my mom.

If you’re interested in RPGs, niche history, sociological case-studies of subcultures, or engaging reads, give this book a try.

“A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula K Le Guin

Ged is a young man with an aptitude for magic. After learning what he can and saving his small mountain village from invasion, a master wizard takes him as an apprentice.

Ged thinks the wizard takes too long, so he asks to go to the main wizard school. Not before trying a spell beyond him and touching something dark.

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I couldn’t have pinpointed it until I read the new afterward by Le Guin, but this book doesn’t contain war. That’s not to say there’s no fighting or tension from threat of violence, but Le Guin finds war boring so keeps it from her book.

There’s still plenty of dramatic tension. Ged gains a rival at school. Ged encounters something dark when trying to reach the dead. Ged tries to outwit a dragon and he fights with flying monsters when fleeing from a trap. And there’s more.

But Le Guin doesn’t rely on war or the stark fight between Good and Evil to tell her story and her characters are more interesting for it.

I like that I got a real sense of the world, of it’s people, of the diverse archipelago cultures, all without large paragraphs of description. When Ged takes the time to learn to sail and make boats, I’m there with him, feeling the sea mist and dreary days. When he feels the first flattery of flirtation and the infatuation dashed, I feel the sting of the bitter lesson. And when he finds the hint of love through a more mature lens, I’m rooting for him to finish his quest successfully and return

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I love that Le Guin has thought out the people of the islands. I love that the majority of the people have dark skin—from bronze to black—and that there are light skinned people in the north. Even within people from a common culture, we get the natural regional differences.

I hold this in contrast with my pet-peeve of planet-wide monocultures of some science fiction. Think the Klingons of Star Trek or the planet-wide desert or city we see in Star Wars. Le Guin feels more real.

This is, I think, my third time through the book, and the most successful. The first time was with a small, purple paperback. The second was an audiobook which started out being read by the author herself, then transitioned to Harlan Ellison.

Ellison is an enthusiastic, if amateur, narrator. I think his inexperienced sense of dramatic reading didn’t work for me. Then again, the inexperienced reader I was when I read it the first time made for a forgettable reading.

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This kicks off my first read-through of the complete Earthsea cycle. As much as I’ve wanted to read the series before, as much as I’ve loved what I’ve read of Le Guin, I’ve only read A Wizard of Earthsea from the series. I know Le Guin later saw the shortcomings of her writing here: her lack of female characters; her shortcomings when looking at race. I’m eager to see where she went with the later stories.

“Phantom Limb” by Reiko Scott

How would the Ship of Theseus problem apply to a person getting cybernetic upgrades? This story asks that question—literally—a few times, and a topic that usually pulls me in.

No exceptions here.

What stands out for me, though, is the addition of family. The contrast of the typical internal question of “who am I” with the external reality of how people treat you. How some of the closest people treat you. And not just with the often used binary of accept/reject, but with the nuance of supportive family who still have trouble accepting who you’ve become.

I poked around online and couldn’t find any other stories from Scott, but I’m eager for more.

Check out “Phantom Limb” over at Book Smugglers.

“Car Wars” by Cory Doctorow

Here we get one of Cory’s activism message as story stories. This one’s about self-driving cars and the dangers of DRM.

As usual, the story’s pretty gripping. Because it’s short, though, there’s not as much chance for character and plot as in something like Little Brother. Taking that into account, the characters we get are relatively well fleshed out.

There’s an audio version available, but I read the web version. It’s got various multi-media (embedded tweets, reader polls at the end of each section, animated graphics) that made that seem the most appropriate way.

I’m trying to figure out how to talk about the issues in the story. There are a lot of ways I could go, but I guess I’ll focus on just one thing here.

Potential problems are mostly what Cory talks about, but without any real solutions. I mean, he has characters using various hacks or work-arounds to get around the DRM in self-driving cars. But I see self-driving cars as an inevitable technology, so I’d like to see ideas about how to make them in a responsible, open way.

I also found myself taking the reader polls less and less seriously as the story went on. I lost interest in putting the time into figuring out an honest answer and was mostly interested in seeing what the current results were. I also found myself wondering if the results were even real.

The story’s medium-short, so check it out if you’re interested. For fans of Doctorow, or for someone who wants a story to help inform or think about issues involving broader use of DRM and self-driving cars.

Link to the story here.

“Clay and Smokeless Fire” by Saladin Ahmed

Part of a series, though this story was my introduction.

Qumqam, a djinn, is wandering the United States during the Trump presidency when he comes across agents who have come to take a family he’s been watching. When the aging neighbor woman comes out of her house to intervene, Qumqam gets a pleasant surprise.

This one’s short, clocking in at less than 2,000 words. It’s got the punch that often makes a story this short work for me.

It’s also what I’ve been thinking of as an indulgent story recently. I know, not super descriptive by itself, but it came up when I was reading a comic the other day (this one). The stories line up with things I believe, or ways I think about issues, but resolve them in a similar sort of way to action movies—somewhat to very over the top, simplified, but still satisfying. Indulgent.

I haven’t read much of Ahmed’s besides his first novel. It’s been a while, but it was a good read. Fun. Unfortunately, I haven’t thought much about his writing recently. After reading “Clay and Smokeless Fire,” though, I’m eager for more of his work.

If you like his stuff, maybe check out his Patreon.

Wes Montgomery

Modern music wasn’t doing it for me, so I had a new Wes album playing all night. The Hammond was singing and Wes was doing his octave thing, both lending themselves to a more laid-back drive.

A regular called from a place on the square. The bars were closing, and it had been a good night for him—he just found out a local paper had named him as favorite hip-hop artist of the year. He asked to stop for pizza on the way home, picked up his slices, and got back in the cab.

I motioned at the radio and looked back. “Do you like jazz?”

“I sing jazz.”

I asked when and where. Turns out jazz isn’t dying in town like I thought.

The bar crowd died down and things shifted to the morning hotel-to-airport runs.

My last call was a man getting in at the Hilton.

“I like your music.” Wes was still playing, of course.

The man and his wife had a child late in life and bought a piano with hopes the kid would play. When that failed, he decided to make use of it on his own. Never interested in playing for other people, he kept practicing classical piano pieces. We talked about Bach and Grieg. When it came to jazz, he knew nothing except he liked what I had playing. I pointed him toward a couple books, but I’m sure he’ll just stick with what he’s been doing.

Two nights later, the day of the opening game of the season, I picked up two former jocks who’d been out with buddies. They’d were feeling good after drinks all day and a win for the home team.

“I love this music, man.” This from the tall skinny one with gray hair. It was his refrain throughout the ride.

Talk shifted to music, them betting I wouldn’t know who they were talking about.

“You look like Peter Frampton, man.” Again from the tall one.

“More like Jerry Garcia.” Always with the Garcia comparison.

We dropped the shorter guy off and pulled back out of the driveway.

“Can you believe that? He only gave you ten dollars?” This on what turned out to be a sixty dollar ride, though half was covered by the voucher from the state tavern league.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, man. I love my friend, but he’s such an Italian, if you know what I mean.”

I stopped for a minute and laughed to myself. “Actually, I’m not quite sure what you mean.”

“You know, the way he acts.”

By this time, we were driving through farmland.

“It’s the next right.”

“You mean this driveway?”

“No. Keep going it’s right here.”

What else can you expect from a drunk.

After driving past and doubling back, I got him to his driveway. He payed, tipped even, and stepped out of the cab.

“You’ve got great music, man.”

“Thanks. It’s Wes Montgomery.”

They’re back

The students have been coming back. First the local kids—they’re less likely to take a cab—then the kids from farther away. This weekend was filled with the latter.

As the stereotype goes, the students from the coasts are spoiled rich kids whose parents send them here so they can get a bit of exposure to the slower, friendlier Midwestern culture. But they all have Daddy’s credit card, freely participate in the sexual disease-swap in their microcosm of fraternities and sororities, and treat the locals like they’re some unfortunate alien species which hopelessly lacks sophistication so shouldn’t be given any regard. So the stereotype goes.

I was waiting for a fare on the campus end of downtown where all the college kids go to drink and heard a tap on my window. Six girls stood outside.

“I’m waiting for Jim,” I told them. “None of you look like a ‘Jim’.”

“You want us.” One girl placed herself in front and shouted in that way only a native New Yorker can. “We’ll make it worth your while.”

“I have to…”

“You want us!”

“Just…”

“No, you want us!”

“I’ve got a call.”

“YOU WANT US!”

In these sorts of situations I have a few choices: I can roll up the window to the oh-so-friendly shouts of “Fuck You!” as I wait for my passenger; I can take the girls three blocks to their sorority and put up with the small tip that usually follows a promise to make it worth my while; or I can just drive off and look for one of the countless other people trying to flag a cab.

This time I went with the second option and put up with their vapid conversation. It was my christening spoiled brat ride of the season.