Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker

They are intelligent machines the size of a small moon, packed with enough weaponry to cauterize the surface of countless planets and destroy any defenders. They bear the scars of countless battles, which they have always won.  They were built millennia ago by one alien empire to eradicate the other — the doomsday weapons followed their programming to the letter and eliminated both.  They have one purpose: the extermination of all life.

And now they have come across the human civilization, spread across the cosmos. Humanity calls them “Berserkers.”

Such is the overarching premise of the Berserker series of books, by Fred Saberhagen; the first of these, simply titled Berserker, I finished reading recently.  Saberhagen eventually either wrote or contributed to 17 books, the last appearing in 2005.  I don’t know if I’ll read all of them, but I really enjoyed the first. Some thoughts follow.

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Spoiler-filled The Last Jedi thoughts and open discussion thread (updated)

When I saw The Force Awakens two years ago, I needed a place to share my thoughts without sharing Star Wars spoilers all over the internet, and my blog turned out to be the perfect place to do it. The same problem arises for The Last Jedi which, on a whim, I went and saw super-late on opening night Thursday. My only twitter comment:

This response also seemed appropriate:

So, below the fold I’ll share more specific, COMPLETELY SPOILER-LADEN, thoughts on the newest Star Wars movie!  You can also use the comments to share your own thoughts. Though don’t be a jerk.

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Posted in Entertainment, Personal, Science fiction | 30 Comments

Keepers of the Flame: The vintage RPGs that still survive and thrive

I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia kick lately, investigating (and buying) copies and components of those classic pen-and-paper role-playing games that I played or always wanted to play. Along the way, I’ve learned that quite a few of these early RPGs still have dedicated communities and fan followings that keep them alive — “keeping the flame burning,” so to speak.  I thought it would be fun to talk about a few of these in a short post!

Dawn Patrol, aka Fight in the Skies (TSR, 1975).  Fight in the Skies did not start as a role-playing game, and spent years being distributed by its designer, Mike Carr.  Inspired by the 1966 movie The Blue Max, Fight in the Skies is a World War I air combat boardgame, in which players dogfight over the European countryside.  The first professionally published version — the 4th edition already! — game out in a limited run in 1972. But the game had caught the attention of Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, and when he founded his gaming company TSR, he reached a publishing agreement with Carr. This 5th edition came out in 1976.

I was born in 1971, and missed the early history of the game; I personally didn’t come across it until the 7th edition came out in 1982, when it had been renamed Dawn Patrol.  I still have my copy, in excellent condition, with the cover pictured above.

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Posted in Entertainment, Fantasy fiction, role-playing games, Science fiction | 1 Comment

1965: Rabbits versus relativity

One of a number of posts that I’ll be sharing based on things discovered during research into my book on cat physics, coming next year!  The previous post on the Chandler wobble is another post in this series.

The ability of cats to land on their feet when they fall from a height, no matter how they fall, is almost legendary.  It has been explored by scientists and engineers for a variety of reasons for at least 150 years (though I have found that scientific interest actually dates back 300 years).

Cats are not the only animals to have a so-called “righting reflex,” however.   Étienne-Jules Marey, the French physiologist who produced the first high-speed photographs of a falling cat righting itself, also demonstrated that rabbits have the same ability, as seen below.

A series of falling rabbit photographs by Marey, c. 1894.

The initial interest in falling cats and rabbits focused on the physics of the problem: what sort of motions does an animal need to make in order to properly flip itself over?  Later research, however, starting in the early 1900s, asked a different question: how does the animal know which way it needs to turn in order to land on its feet, i.e. how does it know which way is down?

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Posted in ... the Hell?, Animals, History of science, Physics | 5 Comments

1891: Chandler finds a wobble

Sometimes, in science, it turns out that the best way to find something is to not be looking for it at all.

This is more or less what happened in 1891, when an amateur astronomer and full-time insurance actuary observed and correctly interpreted a small anomalous motion of the Earth that other astronomers had been looking for decades, a motion now known at the Chandler wobble.

No, not this sort of Chandler wobble.

This is a fun story of serendipitous scientific discovery, and highlights a little-known movement of the Earth! Let’s take a look at the science and the history of the Chandler wobble.

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Posted in History of science, Physics | 3 Comments

Never Bet the Devil and Other Warnings, by Orrin Grey

The first time I encountered Orrin Grey’s work, it wasn’t even his fiction! He wrote the introduction to the Valancourt edition of J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel Benighted, and I was struck then with his knowledge and insight into classic horror.  Since then, I’ve been following his work with interest and enjoyment, and was delighted to support the Kickstarter for a reprint and expansion of his original short story collection, Never Bet the Devil and Other Warnings (2012).  Last night, on a flight back from Minneapolis, I devoured the entire collection in one go!

This is really such a lovely book, both in contents and presentation! It features a cover and illustrations by artist M.S. Corley, who Grey also collaborated with on the charming haunted house chapbook Gardinel’s Real Estate (2014).  The book overall has an atmosphere that really makes it a great little book of creepy stories to read at night, in bed, with a fire in the fireplace and a chill wind whistling outside.

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The Endless Fall, by Jeffrey Thomas

Though I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk the past few months due to life, work and stress, I managed to find one thing that helped me break out of it: long airline flights. Between recent trips to Seattle and Los Angeles (which I should probably blog about), I ended up reading a lot of lovely books, including research for my upcoming cat physics book as well as some excellent fiction.  I tend to stock up my kindle with a lot of books by authors I’m unfamiliar with, and one of those I tackled was Jeffrey Thomas’ The Endless Fall and Other Weird Fictions (2017), which came out in January.

The cover actually gives an accurate sense of what to expect from the stories within, as it is based on the titular story “The Endless Fall.”  The book collects fourteen of Thomas’ recent short fiction, a lovely collection of weird, sometimes sentimental, and horrific tales. Continue reading

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