Tales of the Far West: Full Review

In a previous post, I talked about Far West and reviewed the first four stories in the new short story collection, Tales of the Far West. Here is my full review of the book; to skip the reviews of the first four stories, click here. And, yes, there are already plenty of reviews of the book on Amazon but I started to review the collection here, so I felt like finishing it as well.

He Built The Wall To Knock It Down by Scott Lynch: This story re-energized my passion for the Far West setting, which had started to wane a bit with the passage of time from the initial Kickstarter project. It is cool in exactly the way a Western/Wuxia/steampunk tale should be, with clear, concise action scenes that impart a very cinematic feel to the story with an amazing brevity. It has bar fights, the requisite master teaching the apprentice by having him do mundane tasks, amazing feats of kung fu and gunfighting, gravity-defying acrobatic stunts, explosive fights, and steampunk limbs aplenty.

In Stillness, Music by Aaron Rosenberg, is about a Wandering Star, a member of a clan of couriers who, according to the Far West website “are carefully neutral, no matter what their hearts may tell them. While many of them would be swift to assist wounded farmers after a bandit raid, for all their martial skill, they would not lift one brightly colored finger to stop it in progress.” So of course this story is about an exception to that rule. This story was good but not quite as strong as the opener. (There is a distracting formatting error in the Kindle version of this book: when the character sings, his sentences are smushed together, two to each line, so you can’t tell where one phrase ends and another begins.)

Riding the Thunderbird by Chuck Wendig. I would call it more of a scene, or the seed of a story. It starts in media res and ends there as well. Secrets are hinted at and what happens next is implied, but as a stand-alone story in a collection, it left me shrugging my shoulders. It might just be me, but I expected something fleshed out more. If this is a prelude to a longer story someplace else, it should say so. If not, I don’t think it stands on its own.

Purity of Purpose by Gareth-Michael Skarka, is one of the vignettes that was already up on the Far West website. While short, it is a complete story with a well-described, fantastical fight scene that combines gunplay and kung fu.

Paper Lotus by Tessa Gratton: This is a morbid but curious tale that offers some insight into the religious practices, both official and folk, of the Far West setting.

In the Name of the Empire by Eddy Webb: A nice murder mystery where the suspect is the sheriff and the investigator is a female Twin Eagle detective. The Twin Eagles are a for-hire detective agency that use a lot of steampunk gadgets in the course of their work, which is fun to read about.

Errant Eagles by Will Hindmarch:  This story starts out with a fight on a crashing airship, a great idea that is dragged down by the monotonous description of the fight itself. The two characters involved are named Redhand and Hollowaigh, and the scene plays out as “Redhand does something. Hollowaigh does something. Redhand does something else. Hollowaigh does something else. Etc.” Some variety in the description would have been more enjoyable, and this is not the last time in the story that a fight scene is handled in this manner.

Railroad Spikes by Ari Marmell: This is more of a Twilight Zone-y tale of a train robbery gone bad. I found it to be pleasantly wicked with a good ending.

The Fury Pact by Matt Forbeck: This is the third story in the book to include an Imperial Marshal, a sort of Judge Dredd-esque judge/jury/executioner wearing a stylized mask who protects the Empire’s interests in the Far West.  In this tale, the main character has a jetpack that the Empire wants, so a Marshal is sent to collect it by any means necessary.

Seven Holes by T.S. Luikart: I enjoyed this story for the insight it gives into the powers controlled by the kung-fu experts in Far West, and also what can happen when those with powers are not trained properly.

Local Legend by Jason L. Blair: A bounty hunter comes to town claiming to have killed a local outlaw, and he has the outlaw’s famous sword to prove it. Not a bad story, but not very surprising, either.

Crippled Avengers by Dave Gross: This is a neat revenge story with a cool cast of misfits and a mwu-ha-ha evil villain. Of all the characters in the book, these are probably the ones I would most want to read more about.

Overall, if the purpose of this collection was to showcase various aspects of the Far West universe, then mission accomplished.

The Hidden Underground

As I mentioned in my 2/1/12 post in regards to The Bean webcomic, I enjoy the idea of vast underground worlds that exist beneath the surface, hidden, secret, sinister perhaps, but full of the possibility of adventure.

The Mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings, the tunnels under the Fratelli’s hideout in The Goonies, underground London in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Zion from The Matrix trilogy; I can’t get enough of stories that involve a hidden, buried world beneath our own.

But what I find even more fascinating is the existence of “hidden” underground environments in the real world: subway stations, catacombs, mines, utility and sewer lines, cities built upon the ruins of other cities, and the like.

The Catacombs beneath Paris

Per this August 2010 article in The Wall Street Journal, there is “a network of 155 miles of tunnels” beneath Paris. 155 miles. That is the kind of information that blows my mind. That is an entire city beneath the city, and indeed, after a portion of the city collapsed into the catacombs in the late 1700s (due to the city growing and being built over underground quarries), the catacombs were shored up with walls that ran along the same lines as the city streets above. Think about that now. There was an entire city, a mirror city, that existed sub urbis, below the city. Not what you think of when you think of moving to the suburbs, huh? Since that time, the city above has changed, but the city below remains a mirror of a forgotten Paris. The WSJ article also touches on some of the people who head into the catacombs, known as cataphiles. Entering the non-public portions of the catacombs is illegal but usually only punished by a small fine if you are caught.

An excellent February 2011 National Geographic article fleshes out more of the history and details of the catacombs and the suburban spelunkers who visit them. This article paints a picture of the world beneath Paris: the sewers, the remains of the dead (over 6 million anonymous skeletons), the inspectors who work to prevent further collapses of the city into the subterranean world below, the cataphiles who map out the under-city, and the cataflics (cops whose beat is the catacombs) who seek them out.

Most recently, Wired had an article in their February 2012 issue about a collective of these cataphiles who use their knowledge of the Parisian catacombs to gain access to above-ground sites that are either rarely used or entirely abandoned, but which nonetheless are off limits to the public. A common theme of the article is how easy it is to infiltrate the catacombs and gain access to other areas from there. In fact, it was by heading underground thirty years ago and sneaking into the Ministry of Telecommunications to copy a map of the city’s network of tunnels that the group got its start. This collective, known as UX for Urban EXperiment, is actually trying to restore historic pieces of Paris that have been left to rot. What is incredible is that when they restore something or point out a security flaw in an important location, they are often ignored or worse, rebuffed. Case in point, see what happened after they told officials they had restored a 19th-century clock to working order.

Finally, re-reading these articles left me with a nagging suspicion that there was another article out there that I had read on the subject before any of these. A few Google searches later, I found it here. The article is from a zine called Infiltration that ran for 25 issues and was about “going places you’re not supposed to go, … the art of urban exploration…,” and it is a first-person account by Murray Battle of a couple of days spent in the catacombs with some cataphiles. It is more narrow in focus than the other articles mentioned above, being about one man’s journey rather than the catacombs in general, and so it makes for a nice, different perspective on the subject.

Subway/Metro/Underground Stations

To me, subways are the equivalent of monster-filled dungeons in a role-playing game. There are all these levels and passageways, long maze-like hallways, ramps and stairs, doors that go who knows where, forbidden tunnels that lead into darkness, magical transportation devices that whisk you from one spot to another, and of course, grave danger (the third rail, speeding trains, pet alligators that have been flushed down the drain, that sort of thing). I don’t think there has ever been a time that I have been in a subway and I haven’t started imagining heading down one of the tunnels when no one is looking, and finding some amazing adventure.

And then there are people who actually go and do just that, like Steve Duncan. I found this article on jalopnik.com with an absolutely amazing video of Mr. Duncan leading cinematographer Andrew Wonder into the abandoned City Hall subway station and then to other off-limits areas of New York. The entire thing looks incredibly dangerous but it is fascinating. My heart was beating faster the whole time I watched the video. The subway portion ends at about 8:20 but if you have the time I think you will find yourself watching the whole thing (he also visits New York’s first sewer, Amtrak tunnels next to the Lincoln Tunnel, and the top of the Williamsburg Bridge).

You can find more pictures of the abandoned New York City Hall subway station at this link. (My thanks to So You Want to Be a Wizard author Diane Duane for sharing that link over on Google+.) A list of more abandoned New York City subway stations can be found here, with pictures of each one. And some more pictures and history can be found here. All in all, it is amazing and a bit creepy how much can exist underneath us, that we are never aware of or to which we are denied access.

Cappadocia, Turkey

I had never heard of the underground cities of Cappadocia before finding this web site, which describes the cities as being eighteen-stories deep with the ability to hold more than 20,000 people. Entire cave cities that held tens of thousands of people, connected by kilometers-long tunnels in some cases? Yes, please. But is this Bullshit or Not? Well, after a few hours of searching I can confirm they do exist, but I am not sure that they are as extensive as some sources would have me believe. There is this article, which states “The ancient underground cities of Cappadocia in central Turkey represent some of the finest examples of underground architecture known to exist. However their dimensions and interconnections are often vastly exaggerated.” Unfortunately, the only part of that article is English is the summary I just quoted; the rest is in German and so whatever answers it might hold are hidden to me.

This UNESCO video states that one underground town (which they frustratingly do not name) goes down eight stories. A Saturday Evening Post article from September 1980 describes the “subterranean city of Kaymakli,” which consists of “a seven-level labyrinth of corridors, connecting rooms, communal kitchens, wine cellars, granaries and even a chapel. … Kaymakli connects with a second underground city, Derinkuyu, via a 7-kilometer tunnel.” The article also refers to “great stone discs [that are] rolled aside from passageways where they once stood as barriers against intermittent raiders,” and you can see an example of one of these discs in the UNESCO video, where they claim that it weighs one ton and, once set in place, can only be opened from the inside. However, I could not find additional trusted references to the supposed kilometers-long connecting tunnel.

According to Wikipedia, Derinkuyu is 11 floors deep with a depth of about 280 feet. Per this Turkish travel site, there are a total of 36 such underground cities, with Derinkuyu being the deepest and Kaymakli being the widest.

Short of visiting Turkey (unlikely in my near future) or finding access to a better online library reference section (I will have to work on that), I may not be able to perfectly divide the fact from fiction for this underground environment. But even the low-end guess for the number of people who lived in these caves is 10,000, and they had food, livestock, work and storage space, and the ability to lock invaders out.It may not be as extensive or deep as Moria (probably a good thing), but this is exactly the sort of real-yet-fantastic environment that fires my imagination.

Our Morlock Future?

So what are the chances we might follow the cataphiles and Cappadocians back under the earth? Well, as this website points out, there are several hurdles to overcome for living underground: lack of natural sun and the day-night cycle will mess with our circadian rhythms and could lead to a vitamin D deficiency and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Also, depending on the depth you are living it and if you are going to return to the surface, decompression is an issue, just as it is for divers coming back up from the deep sea. Water is probably plentiful, but getting enough air is an issue. Technology can probably solve most of the physical issues, but the question remains of whether or not humans would be able to adapt to living underground long-term.

I was surprised to find that some people are already working underground (although in nearly all of the office jobs I have held, I might as well have been underground). According to “SubTropolis, U.S.A” (The Atlantic, May 2010), “With 5 million square feet of leased warehouse, light-industry, and office space, and a network of more than two miles of rail lines and six miles of roads, SubTropolis is the world’s largest underground business complex—and one of eight or so in the [Kansas City, Missouri] area.” The website for Space Center Kansas City boasts that they “have almost 7 million square feet of subsurface industrial real estate carved from natural limestone formations.” Pros of running your business in their underground facilities include reduced utility costs, “year round constant temperatures and covered parking.” (Emphasis mine, because I think it is funny that one of the pros of working underground is covered parking.)

I did run across some snippets of old information about Taisei Corporation and their planned Alice City in Japan, which according to this site would “incorporate a very wide and deep shaft [in the earth], within which would be built levels for habitation, all looking in toward a hollow core topped with a huge skylight,” but there is no current news about that project on Taisei Corporation’s website so I guess that did not happen. (Damn, that would have been cool.)

The best underground environments may still exist primarily in fiction, but even this brief look at some real-life settings has given me a lot of ideas for my own fiction work. I hope you found it interesting as well. If you have a favorite real or fictional underground environment, please share it with me. Until next time!

Webcomics Wednesday: 2/1/2012

For today’s Webcomics Wednesday, I decided to catch up on The Bean, a comic written and drawn by Travis Hanson. First, some history: My wife and I first met Travis while at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con. It had been a bad couple of years for us and we went a little crazy with the retail therapy at the Con. One of our purchases was a print by Travis. From there, I discovered his website and his long-form webcomic, The Bean. My wife also recently commissioned a print for me from Travis, which turned out great, don’t you think?

Since that time, I have backed two of his projects on Kickstarter, the first two volumes of The Bean in print. Volume One, available at the Bean Leaf Press store collects the first 150 or so pages, and it wasn’t until I received and read that volume that I decided to go ahead and catch up with the rest online (believe it or not, I wasn’t really into reading webcomics before then. Travis, The Bean was a gateway drug!). In this post, I will stick to discussing Volume One.

The Bean starts out in what feels like your typical fantasy world set-up. There are humans, ogres, elves, and goblins, and the story is centered around an orphaned human boy named Bean whose father disappeared, resulting in Bean having to work as an indentured servant to an ogre who runs an inn. Bean is soon caught up in an adventure that deals with an evil, rhyming troll (my least favorite character of the story, due to the sometimes forced nature of his rhymes) and a revelation about Bean’s missing father.

So what elevates this work above other Tolkien-esque fantasy stories? Travis’ artwork, for one thing. His landscapes (both above and below ground, but more on that in a bit), the fantastical flora and fauna that inhabit them, the run-down feel of the world the characters inhabit, and the style of the characters themselves, all work together well. I find myself examining every panel for the details it holds, rather than simply rushing through the story. Travis is able to breathe life into the world and the characters, so that you believe in and connect to even the most inhuman of characters (see this page toward the end of volume one for a touching example, but if you don’t want to spoil the story, read everything preceding it first, of course).

I especially enjoy the underground worlds that Travis creates, both in this story and his prints. I love stories, fictional and true, about underground environments hidden under the world we know: unused subway systems, the tunnel system under Paris, the under-city in Seattle, even the tunnels under Disneyland (which I like to imagine are much more extensive and nefarious than Disney would have us to believe). Once The Bean heads underground, you have caverns full of decrepit statues, endless staircases, rusting pipes, ancient hieroglyphs, and hints of monstrous things lurking at the edge of darkness.

The other thing that kept me reading was a second plot about a ranger who goes searching for Bean only to stumble onto a larger threat facing the region, which may just loop back around to tie into Bean’s own hidden history. There are also hints of influences of Michael Moorcock and even The Legend of Zelda thrown in here (those might just be my perception), and by the end of Volume One, the series was hitting all the right notes to entice me to read on.

The Kickstarter project for Volume Two of The Bean has funded and is closed, but you can catch up on the adventures of Bean at http://www.beanleafpress.com/, and then perhaps support Volume Three on Kickstarter when it is ready to go.

I followed a link off of the links page on The Bean to Twilight Monk, because it sounded cool. Twilight Monk is written and drawn by Trent Kaniuga and it reminds me of Naruto so far, in a good way. The impish lead character is named Mao, and he is a goof-off who wants to be taken seriously as a hero. He is friends with Rin, a big oaf whose special attack is certainly one I have never seen before, and Nora, who unfortunately seems to exist to be the nagging Jiminy Cricket of the group when she is not fulfilling the Princess Peach role. (The story is still in its early days and I hope to see Nora grow into a more fleshed-out, unique character.)

There is a lot of good humor in this webcomic, both physical and in the dialogue, and some well-done action scenes. And a talking turtle with an attitude, which is a nice addition.

The art is in black and white but uses a wide range of greys; I am not an artist, so I hesitate to use art terminology I may be getting totally wrong, but I would describe the art as having an ink and wash style to it (feel free to correct/educate me on this), rather than just crisp black and white lines. Some dramatic examples include this and this. Indeed, that second link starts a whole flashback sequence that is framed in vivid, thick black brushstrokes that appear to be scraped out of ink (or perhaps blood?).

The backgrounds are usually loosely sketched and then painted in light grey, which lets the more-detailed foreground action stand out clearly against them. Just as with Travis Hanson’s The Bean, the landscapes in this comic are well-detailed and delightful to examine. I like that the village where the story takes place seems to be built into a craggy mountain area, with wood-slatted ramps and ladders connecting everything. It looks like it would be a fun place to explore.

It looks like this webcomic had a lengthy hiatus from June to nearly December in 2011 but is back with weekly updates since then. Twilight Monk has had a great beginning, so I hope Trent is able to sustain the work over the longer term so I can see where this is going (and eventually have a copy for my shelf).