At The Gift Shop of Madness

“Suddenly a bulky white shape loomed up ahead of us, and we flashed on the second torch. It is odd how wholly this new quest had turned our minds from earlier fears of what might lurk near. Those other ones, having left their supplies in the great circular place, must have planned to return after their scouting trip toward or into the abyss; yet we had now discarded all caution concerning them as completely as if they had never existed. This white, waddling thing was fully six feet high, yet we seemed to realise at once that it was not one of those others. They were larger and dark, and according to the sculptures their motion over land surfaces was a swift, assured matter despite the queerness of their sea-born tentacle equipment. But to say that the white thing did not profoundly frighten us would be vain. We were indeed clutched for an instant by a primitive dread almost sharper than the worst of our reasoned fears regarding those others. Then came a flash of anticlimax as the white shape sidled into a lateral archway to our left to join two others of its kind which had summoned it in raucous tones. For it was only a penguin—albeit of a huge, unknown species larger than the greatest of the known king penguins, and monstrous in its combined albinism and virtual eyelessness.” HP Lovecraft “At The Mountains of Madness

Visual confirmation:

Space Opera Book Cover Maker

Ladles and Gentlebens, here it is: The Space Opera Book Cover Maker Thing!

First a word of warning. The images take a while to load and might be even slower depending on your internet connection. However, that speeds up as your browser caches some of them.

The basic idea is this. There are seven layers of images which you can control. The images load as thumbnails (actually the full image is loading into your browser’s memory hence it being a bit slow). You then press a button and all the images you’ve picked get stacked together into an HTML Canvas. If you right click on the canvas then you can save the combined image to your computer.

Some layers are solid (with some 100% transparent bits) and some are semi-transparent and add effects. Every layer has the option of a 100% transparent image called blank.png which helps you dial back a bit when it all gets just too much.

The “randomise” button will set each layer to some random image.


Best way to use it: Hit “randomise” and then blank out a few layers.

  • 1. background: This is the base of your image and is a solid image. The images are a mix of gradients, swrily nebulas and star fields.
  • 2. back atmosphere: This is a semi-transparent layer and includes more swirly nebulas or extra stars.
  • 3. distant features: This layers has planets and asteroids and other lurking background objects. There’s also giant space skulls and looming heads and other things.
  • 4. mid atmosphere: Another layer of colours! This layer can help add depth to your image. This layer is a bit hit or miss. It’s great if you want to make a bakground planet look more distant but can make your image look a bit busy.
  • 5. lower left object and 6. upper right object: These two layers contain similar images in a variety of positions. The layers contains things like space ships or foreground objects. Lots of trial and error are needed here. Best option is to either have one of the two layers blank or to have quite contrasting styles. Two big spaceships in both sections rarely works I’ve found.
  • 7. front effects: Finally a few extra effects to add a bit of flare!

Can you use it for…Yes! Doesn’t matter what. I’m lazy and the laziest IP option is Public Domain because I’m not going to spend any time or effort policing how people use it. Your combination of images is your expression 🙂 Feel free to download individual elements sperately if you like.

Titles and other text elements I decided to avoid. You will need to add your own. The HTML Canvas object does have text functions but they are too fiddly to add in a way that are both flexible and easy to use.

Bootstrap worldbuilding

In that review of The Dragon Prince, I wanted a term to describe the kinds of initial, upfront worldbuilding that’s done by a prologue or even by the cover of a book. It’s not neccesarily an info-dump (although The Dragon Prince example was) but could be from a map at the start or a conversation early in the story.

I thought “bootstrap worldbuilding” sort of works — providing enough premise and backstory that the rest of the plot can deliver the world more organically. A classic is obviously Tolkein’s opening paragraph to The Hobbit, which doesn’t just let you know that the book will feature a small fantastical person but already sets up aspects of Bilbo’s character. I discussed already how sparingly Avatar managed this bootstrap worldbuilding in the opening credits, which explain the magic system, show the shape of the world and establish the fundamental conflict. Even so, the initial episodes had a slightly longer version:

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days, a time of peace when the Avatar kept balance between the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads. But that all changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar mastered all four elements. Only he could stop the ruthless firebenders. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years have passed and the Fire Nation is nearing victory in the War. Two years ago, my father and the men of my tribe journeyed to the Earth Kingdom to help fight against the Fire Nation, leaving me and my brother to look after our tribe. Some people believe that the Avatar was never reborn into the Air Nomads, and that the cycle is broken. But I haven’t lost hope. I still believe that somehow, the Avatar will return to save the world.

I’m not sure whether the opening scene of Terminator 2 counts as this or is better thought of as a recap. Either way it establishes the science-fiction premise and establishes the stakes for the film.

Terminator 1 opens more sparingly but does a similar thing, establishing a futuristics, dystopian theme for a film that will be largely set in the present. Because of time-travel shenanigans of course, the backstory of the plot is in the future.

Star Wars (episode 4) has its famous opening crawl but I think this is more of a subversion of the idea. The text almost doesn’t matter and is there more to create a sense of a backstory than actually convey important details. The following scenes with Leia’s ship being pursued and bordedby Darth Vader establish the conflict more clearly and organically the opening text. Lucas interestingly included the text more to evoke movie serials than to set up his story.

I’ll finish with John Scalzi’s infamous parody of fantasy opening info-dump scene-setting: Still worth a chuckle.


Review: The Dragon Prince (Netflix)

A review by Aidan Moher of Netflix’s new cartoon The Dragon Prince persuaded me to go and watch it. The relevant hook being that the show is a new animated series from one of the writers of Avatar, Aaron Ehasz.

If on the strength of that connection, you are hoping for something with the complexity or subtly of worldbuilding as Avatar, The Dragon Prince might disappoint. The setting is a more conventional epic fantasy world complete with dragons, elves and castles. A heavy info-dump at the start of episode 1 explains the magic system (shades of Avatar there in that it is elemental) and the surrounding history. The world (or at least a continent) is split between a human half and a magical elvish half. The humans are attempting to exploit “dark magic” (that’s not going to end well) and the border between the elves and humans is guarded by dragons. Just prior to the story starting, troops of a human king killed the top dragon and destroyed the dragon’s egg: the egg being the “Dragon Prince” of the title.

Episodes 1 to 3 are primarily focused on setting up the premise and dynamics of the series and it is really only by episode 4 that the show hits its stride. Two princes (step brothers) one still a child and one a teenager on a quest to try and heal the divisions in the world with the help from a young elf who is an assassin who doesn’t want to kill people. At this point, the kind of relationship dynamics, humour and stories begin to pull you in.

The initial episodes throw a lot at the viewer but it is interesting what is explained (sometimes clumsily) and what isn’t. We know very little by the end of the nine episodes about the prince’s mother and nothing about Prince Callum’s father (the older prince is not the son of the current king). I don’t think that is a flaw in the storytelling, the writers clearly trust viewers to cope with not having all the details yet. However, that trust didn’t extend to the more general set up. Compared with Avatar which managed to do the key info-dump of worldbuilding in the title sequence and then let us discover the world more organically, The Dragon Prince felt in more of a hurry to establish how the overt fantasy elements work even though the world depicted is a more conventional setting.

A stronger element to the show is almost all of the antagonists are sympathetic characters. The story settles into a heroes-on-a-quest being pursued but they are being chased by brother and sister duo Claudia and Soren, both of whom are depicted as basically good people. Characters also are somewhat varied in terms of ethnicity (both the King and the younger of the two princes are black in an otherwise faux-medieval-Europe setting). The prince’s aunt, General Amaya, is deaf and signs — her signing is usually interpreted by her deputy but at least one sequence trusts the audience enough to let her signing go untranslated.

Nine episodes are only just enough to get a feel for the show. Its primary strength (and similarity to Avatar) is the strength and likability of the characters.


I know people were curious about the plane hanging from the roof of a library and I was in the city last Sunday, I made a detour to get a picture from outside.


As advertised, there are little landscapes on top of the plane (including a volcano on its nose).

Here’s an extra cute touch: there are little viewing telescopes as well.


It’s a literal flight of fantasy.

CoOrDiNaTeD aTtAcKs!

Cast your minds back to April 7 2015. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish were beaten by the Connecticut Huskies in the NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship and Senator Rand Paul announced he was going to run for the Republic nomination for President of the United States. Meanwhile, in Sad Puppy related news, Larry Correia posted this:

“To the the SMOFs, moderates, new comers, and fence sitters I addressed yesterday, yes, we have disagreements with you. We’re happy to discuss them. We are not, however, happy to be libeled as the vilest forms of scum to walk the earth, and we are not happy to live in fear of career destruction. You want my part of fandom to coexist peacefully? You want to work out our differences and keep the awards meaningful? So do we. Though we disagree on the details and the issues, we also love this stuff. But coordinated slander campaigns, lies, character assassinations, threats, witch hunts? No… We won’t stand for that.” [CF: my emphasis]

“Coordinated slander”, oh my golly gosh! The issue being that the Sad Puppy campaign had become notable enough that its impact was being covered by the mainstream media. You’d think that was predictable — make a loud enough noise, eventually pay attention — but no, for Larry the news coverage must have been because of some hidden layer of coordination. A week later he was on the same theme:

“So here is a question for you.  What term would you use to describe the shared politics of the dozens of reporters, columnists, and bloggers who have run similar articles this week with obvious false accusations that Sad Puppies supporters ran an anti-diversity slate, motivated by racism, sexism, and homophobia? Jerks? Yes, they are, but that is a bit too coordinated for mere jerkage. That was a political attempt to establish a political narrative.” [CF: my emphasis]

Changing topics but not themes and sticking with a Sad Puppy outlet for a moment, fast forward to February 3 2017. Milo Yiannopolous’s star had risen high with an invite to the Conservative Political Action Conference and a book deal with Simon & Shuster when anti-Trump Republican group The Reagan Battalion released an edited version of a 206 video in which Yiannopolous justified sex with 13 year olds. At Mad Genius Club, Kate Paulk was unhappy about Yiannopolous’s book deal being cancelled:

“What I care about is that someone who has – objectively – done not one damn thing wrong is the subject of a coordinated effort to not merely silence him, but disappear him. I’ve seen this happen in the past. It happened to Larry Correia. To Brad Torgersen. I didn’t get the full force of it last year, but instead got the cold shoulder of people doing their best to pretend I’d already been disappeared.” [CF: my emphasis]

The theme being coordination obviously, the idea that if multiple sources are saying similar things it must be because of hidden coordination. Of course, some people really do plan things and approaches. Obviously the Reagan Battalion planned their media campaign against Yiannopolous but the “coordination” claim is stronger than that and proposes that the subsequent fuss and related outrage was also somehow coordinated.

I was initially planning this post yesterday after I read a series of tweets from Ethan Van Sciver, the right wing comic book artist who claims the mantle of ‘ComicsGate’®™. EVS was the guy who had the big falling out with Vox Day in September. In a series of tweets he disappointed me slightly by using the word “organized” instead of “coordinated”. I shan’t link to the tweets because it messes with the WordPress layout but the combined message was this:

“This Wave of Organized Attacks on ComicsGate consisted of:
1. The rise of @sinKEVitch as leader of AntiCG!
2. Jeff Lemire calling pros to arms against us!
3. Darwyn Cooke’s widow baiting CG!
4 Three Bleeding Cool hitpieces on me!
5. Hit pieces in the Washington Post, & INVERSE
6. Hit piece in The Guardian! The Daily Dot!
7. Robbi Rodriguez sending me a photo of his anus!
8. Vox Day trying to co-opt ComicsGate for the Alt Right!
9. Patton Oswalt condemning ComicsGate!
10. Pablo Hidalgo of Lucasfilm compares ComicsGate to the KKK!
11. John Layman spews bile at 21 year old CG writer Nasser Rabadi for 21 consecutive tweets!
12. Kieran Shiach penned hitpiece in POLYGON!
13. Marvel Comics Chief Creative Office Joe Quesada weighs in to debate @DiversityAndCmx and EVS: Loses debate.” [CF: my emphasis]

Rather like the Yiannopolous defence, the charge of coordination here crosses political lines. EVS suggests a conspiracy between a disperate group that includes the Guardian and Vox Day. The Yiannopolous piece suggested coordination between the left and the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Like I said, this post was going to concentrate on a theme among culture wars and be a break from writing about the nomination process of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. However, the morning news presented this to me:

“These are smears, pure and simple. And they debase our public discourse. But they are also a threat to any man or woman who wishes to serve our country. Such grotesque and obvious character assassination—if allowed to succeed—will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions from service. As I told the Committee during my hearing, a federal judge must be independent, not swayed by public or political pressure. That is the kind of judge I will always be. I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process. The coordinated effort to destroy my good name will not drive me out.” [CF: my emphasis]

It’s an interesting principled-tone Kavanaugh strikes whilst simultaneously accusing two different women of inventing ‘smears’ against him. And there is that tic again. Of course, yes, clearly the Democrats coordinate their opposition to his nomination just as the Republicans and other conservative groups have coordinated their support of him but the ‘coordination’ here is intended (as it does in the examples above) to imply that criticism is not just illegitimate but sinister and underhand.

“They” are out to get me and it doesn’t matter who ‘they’ are or that ‘they’ are a superfluous hypothesis to describe events. By casting events in this way, a call to action is made against the shadowy Them — who, to quote Kavanaugh, are a threat “any man or woman who wishes to serve our country”.

Personally I like to believe Them are giant ants. I prefer the classics.





The Legend of Korra: Book 3 – Change

What the Legend of Korra had lacked up to this point was an interesting villain. Amon and Unalaq had superficially seemed different but underneath were rather similar: both water benders shaped by sibling rivalry and with hidden motives. Zaheer is quite different.

A sort of anarchist and a genuine revolutionary, Zaheer is not a person in conflict with himself. His agenda is revealed through the series but it is not a secret from his followers. Of all the characters in both The Legend of Korra and Avatar, he is surprisingly at ease with himself and this is matched with his powers. He eventually gains the self-discipline to be able to fly unaided using air-bending and he’s also portrayed as being at peace with the spirit world.

It’s an interesting choice but a clever one. Zaheer’s lack of inner turmoil is an unusual one for a pop-culture version of a fanatic. Henry Rollins gives the character an intimidating intensity which elevates the contracts with Korra. Her character has been one at odds with herself throughout and lacking a sense of purpose and direction.

Ba Sing Se remains a weak point. The worldbuilding has never been shy about its Japanese and Chinese influences but Ba Sing Se has always been rather too obviously a stand-in for Beijing. The parallels are intensified by making the Earth Queen resemble a stereotype of a despot and modelled on the late nineteenth century, Empress Dowager Cixi.

A more interesting city is  Zafou: a technology-led model city that has solar-punk elements as well as hints of art-deco. Zafou his a clear indication of a world that has its own direction to follow rather than simply borrowing from history.

Books 1 and 2 both ended with resolved stories. They had open endings that promised new possibilities but Korra in particular ended in a better place emotionally and as a character then where she started. Book 3 changes that. The plot around Zaheer is complete but as a story arc, Korra’s plotline is overtly incomplete. There is a momentum for Book 4 that the previous seasons lacked.

Sorry, but yes you did co-opt the Sad Puppies…

Comics love nothing more than a crossover event! In a rambling post about the schmozzle that was (comicsgatecomics^comicsgate^gate)! Vox Day is very keen to set the record straight about previous culture-wars hijackings:

“I would, however, like to correct one common misapprehension: I never co-opted Sad Puppies. To the contrary, I was the architect of the Sad Puppies most notorious success and at no point in time was there ever any conflict between the Sad Puppies and me. If you look more closely, you’ll notice that none of the four leaders of the Sad Puppies, from Larry to Kate, have ever made a single accusation on that score. I don’t intend to say any more than that, except to reiterate an absolute fact: I did not co-opt Sad Puppies and anyone who claims I did in any way, shape, or form is wrong.” [link for reference, I don’t recommend following it]

Hmmm, no I think it is safe to say that Vox Day really did co-opt the Sad Puppy campaign. Let me count the ways:

  • He used Brad Torgersen’s cobbled together slate to form his own slate.
  • He used the name “Rabid Puppies” to sow confusion between the two campaigns
  • He commissioned a logo for his campaign from the same artist as the logo for the Sad Puppies campaign
  • He manipulated the Sad Puppies into the spectacular own goal of the Tor boycott
  • He mounted a vote stacking campaigns to help ensure that the Sad Puppy nominees swept whole categories…
  • …and then left the Sad Puppies to defend the outcome

To be honest, I’m a little surprised Vox isn’t boasting about it. He very much wants people to believe that he is a master strategist of Batman like proportions and their are very few actual examples of him actually doing anything particularly clever. Yet the manipulation of the Sad Puppies is the one obvious and genuine example – he played them like a fiddle. Yes, they were easy and very gullible targets but still, Vox has no reason for false modesty in this one (and very limited) regard.