Saturday, November 19, 2011

BattleTech Flashbacks

It dawned on me a few years ago that I’ve been writing material for BattleTech and MechWarrior for a long time – over a quarter of a century.  One, it made me feel old.  Two, it stirred up some memories that were fanned even further at GenCon this year.  (I really wanted to sit down and play the board game but I wasn’t able to.) 

For those of you that don’t know, BattleTech is a robust science fiction universe that has millions of printed words supporting it.  It has been PC/Xbox/Sega games, board games, toys, a cartoon series, comic books, novels, and, well, just about everything else.  For over a quarter of a century the BattleTech universe has grown and expanded.  It is huge, with thousands of followers.  It is something I’m proud to have contributed to (in my own little ways). 

When I got involved in BattleTech it was by accident.  My last semester of college I wrote a scenario set for the Star Trek RPG from FASA.  I reached out to them at the end of the semester and Ross Babcock said, “I love it.  But before we publish it, would you like to write for BattleTech?”  I had no idea what it was.  Ross sent me a copy of Battledroids (the name of the game before it became BattleTech) and some material on the universe. 

I got hooked quickly.

BattleTech was more simple in those days.  You defended a planet with a company of ‘Mech.  New ‘Mechs weren’t manufactured, you had to salvage your damaged gear to keep functional.  It was big robotic fighting machines slamming it out with lasers and missiles.  Hell, I admit it, I loved it.  The fact that you could construct a ‘Mech made the game variable, more interesting than the usual board game fare

Ross sent me copies of the rough sketches of some of the ‘Mechs for the original (first) Technical Readout and said, “Here…write up some descriptions of these.”  He said that I was writing along with a handful of other authors and whoever did the best, would get more to do.  We got paid a whopping $50 per ‘Mech, which seemed fantastic.  I mean seriously, I was getting paid to do this?  (I still have those original copies in a binder along with the original dot-matrix printer version of universe guide.)   

I must have done pretty well because I was getting BattleTech work two years before the Star Trek scenario I wrote (The Strider Incident) was finally released.  I wrote anything and everything I could for BattleTech.  The book opportunities kept coming.  Ross handed me a three sentence description for a mercenary unit called Snord’s Irregulars.  With that kernel of thought, I cranked out two supplements. I asked once where the name Cranston Snord came from and the answer I got was that it was from an old BC cartoon, the punchline to the joke of “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb.”  Back in those days, a good idea got jotted down and shot out to those of us writing and we turned it into a product. 

The universe changed with the 4th Succession War.  Suddenly there were new ‘Mechs, regiments of troops (where did those come from?) and deep politics.  Keeping track of the universe, for years, was every writer’s responsibility.  There was no database to go to for continuity checking.  Every year the product became more complicated, more complex, more challenging.  I loved it!

Every year I went to Sam Lewis for what I lovingly called, “My annual grovel for a novel.”  I would bring three to five ideas and pitch them.  For two years I was sent packing with, “maybe next year.”  One year I met Sam at Gen Con and pitched five ideas.  The last one I had written the night before leaving for Milwaukee, a hurriedly scribbled idea that I had put no real thought to.  Sam chucked the first four ideas but latched onto the last one – Highlander Gambit.  He loved the idea of a Death Commando coming home to the Northwind Highlanders.  I remember thinking, “wow, I sold a novel idea – and I really have no idea what I am going to write…holy crap!” Somehow, in a matter of a few hours, I had a detailed chapter-by-chapter summary done.  The story, the characters…they all seemed to just come to life.  As a person that dabbles in playing the bagpipes, I simply loved writing about mercenaries that wore kilts.   

The novels are beyond fun to write.  It’s not just the stories, the political intrigue, and the battles.  It is about characters.  I still write books that I enjoy reading, though I admit I haven’t cracked one of my own books in years.  They are still stories that I think hit the mark.  With more than 12 under my belt (if you check the fine print in Star Lord, you will find that I did the rewrite on that novel – and I could do a whole blog entry on that bad experience alone, trust me), I would do another one in a heartbeat. 

I was asked by a fan this year at the Catalyst Game Labs booth, “which is your favorite novel you wrote?”  Wow.  That is tough to answer because I like all of my novels for different reasons.  I can narrow it to two.  First, from the original series of novels, Exodus Road.  The Smoke Jaguar character of Trent…turning traitor to the Clans was neat.  I mean seriously, the main character is someone you like but he is a traitor!  Trent was complex in many respects.  Exodus Road is the story of someone that put honor above politics, even if that meant killing the very thing he loved. Trent became the instrument that spelled the end of the Smoke Jaguars.  Imagine that kind of emotional burden.   

Second, from the Dark Age novels, Surrender Your Dreams tops my list as a favorite.  Surrender should have been a dud of a book.  I was told, “give us three stories of Knights of the Republic trapped outside of Fortress Republic.”  I toyed with doing just that, three separate little novellas.  That seemed lame and I figured the readers would rebel against that approach.  Then I thought, “why not stitch the stories together?” I wanted some ties back to the original series of novels.  Since I precipitated the demise of the Smoke Jaguars in Exodus Road, I thought, “what if we told the story of what happened to the survivors of that Clan – what they became.”  The Fidelis were born.  No longer the Jags of old, they were something else, something cooler. 

I was watching Pulp Fiction and I got the idea of jumbling the order of the chapters.  A lot of thought went into that.  Some readers hated it.  I didn’t and wouldn’t change a thing.  The book has everything, the ghost of The Master, Redburn, and even Devlin Stone (albeit in a message.)  I know some people didn’t like Surrender Your Dreams, but I thought it was neat and stand solidly behind it. 

I don’t get the play BattleTech too often any more.  My kids and my friend and his kids played the Wizkids game MechWarrior.  I know purists swear long and hard about that rendition of the game, but I liked it…and so did the kids.  We waged some massive battles, raining artillery everywhere, letting loose with Alpha Strikes.  It was fun.  I collected the BattleTech comics and the toys too.   

Back “in the day” we used to get all of the authors together every year at GenCon for a brunch.  We would talk, brainstorm ideas, hear the latest changes in direction in the universe, get a run-down of what was in the product pipeline – that kind of stuff.  These meetings were a lot of fun.  We don’t do them anymore, but I wished we did.  Sometimes egos got stepped on but overall, these were fun to attend.  It was a chance for those of us on the inside track to talk and joke about BattleTech in a way only we could. 

I am still writing BattleTech too.  Two weeks ago I finished an installment in my series for BattleCorps continuing the story of Raul Tinker in Son of Blake.  I have a plan for this series that goes through the end of the Jihad.  When done, the installments are a novella all on their own and tell the story of the Jihad from the Word of Blake’s perspective.  I would really love to see the Wolverine Saga published as a book (Betrayal of Ideals).  BattleCorps had kept BattleTech fiction alive and well. 

As much as I harp about the good old days, there were things then that drove you nuts as a writer.  The universe got so big that you had to ask for help to keep track of all of the subtle changes - for example.  The current product leadership under Loren and Randall is, well, great.  Like myself, these guys have a love of the product and the universe and kept the classic board game brand going when everyone else saw it as dead.  BattleTech is making a resurgence, at least that is the buzz I’m hearing and witnessing.  I don’t think our best is behind us.  The best is about to come!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Book Review: Wanted: Gentleman Bank Robber - By Dane Batty

Dane Batty, the author of Wanted:  Gentleman Bank Robber: The true story of Leslie Ibsen Rogge, one of the FBI’s most elusive criminals, reached out to me to ask if I would do a review of his book.  I get these from time-to-time and try not to pass up the chance.  I wasn’t disappointed. 

This book is a trade paperback book from Nish Publishing Company and from what I can see, this is Dane’s first book.  Sometimes this throws up some red flags.  Adding to this, he is the nephew of the subject of the book.  My apprehension level was pretty high as you can imagine.    

Most true crime books are about murders and they have a pattern of sorts.  You start with the crime itself – usually with a scene of brutality to pull in the readers.  Then there is the search for the killer, the capture, the trial (if there is one) and the closure.  I’m not knocking this genre, I write in it myself.  The pattern is one that should be familiar to most readers of true crime.

This book is different though.  It is not about a murderer or serial killer, but a bank robber.  Batty starts out with a robbery, enough to whet our appetites, the pulls us into the story itself. 

The book is written in two voices, the author (Batty) and that of Leslie Rogge outlining his robbing lifestyle.  I was a little torn on the writing at first.  Rogge doesn’t give any context to his crimes, he tends to write what he was thinking, what he saw, and what he did.  We don’t get the usual flavor for the scenes that a polished professional writer provides.  Batty’s sections are fairly small and he misses a chance to provide some context and detail that would have enhanced the story.  That was my only disappointment with the book, and it is one I found myself moving past.    

This is the story of how a man traveled around the country (and the world) robbing banks.  He was not a violent robber.  His style was subdued and not severely threatening.  Rogge would wear a suit into the bank and carry a briefcase with a police scanner.  He would schedule a meeting with the bank manager and rob the vault quickly without a lot of panic or grandstanding. 

What the reader gets in this book is a blueprint on robbing a bank in the 1980’s and 90’s.  Rogge is not a likeable character at all.  He seems almost sociopathic, not caring about the terror he inflicted on others.  People took him in to help him when he was down and his pattern was to turn and take advantage of them, often robbing them as well.  There isn’t a hint of remorse on his part for what he did or the consequences of his activities.  My aunt and cousin work in banks that have been robbed and trust me, it does emotionally traumatize people to go through it.  Rogge commits this crime with wild abandon and seems to think it was fun.  The fact that he showed a weapon to people and threatened to turn the robbery into a homicide doesn’t seem to faze him in the least. 

Rogge’s family was under constant surveillance by the police who were hunting him down, but Rogge does not seem to care.  For him the world was a playground where he took advantage of the people and situations around him without a second thought.  At one point I put down the book and realized that he had his girlfriend and her young boy with him while he’s fleeing the FBI dragnet and continuing to rob banks.  Yet from his own words, he never seems to give that any thought. 

And yet, I couldn’t put this book down!

I wanted to hate Rogge, but found myself fascinated with his lack of guilt for his actions and the way he planned his robberies.  This book puts you in the mind of a professional bank robber, a man who did it often and got away with incredible amounts of money.  It disturbed me that people like him walked the planet…but at the same time I had to keep reading.  There was no one in the book I was championing, not a single law enforcement officer was interviewed for the book.  As much as you end up disliking Rogge, you keep reading to see just what he’ll do next. 
With all respect to the author, I don’t think that Rogge was a “gentleman robber.”  However reading about him exposes a character unlike any I have read about in recent years – a man devoid of care about others.  Someone could get their doctorate degree by writing a paper about the quirks of his personality.  Dane Batty’s brought us a good tale here and you should pick it up.  Wanted is not your typical true crime fare.  Despite its weaknesses, I found myself driven to finish it and I think you will too.  Pick it up and be prepared to enter a world that few of us ever see or can even comprehend – the mind of a serial bank robber.  You will never enter a bank again and not look around at the patrons and wonder what is really going on, wondering if that man sitting at the manager’s desk is actually robbing the bank.     

Go buy this book. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Importance of Alternate History

I am a huge fan of Alternate History.  For those of you that don’t know; Alternate History is the genre of books where a historical event is changed.  The effect is a story where a new set of events unfold, providing the readers with a new perspective of the importance of the actual events that occurred.  You end up with stories that can be compelling…what if the Confederacy won the Civil War or if Hitler had successfully invaded Britain?

Philip K. Dick really kicked off this genre with The Man in the High Castle where Germany wins WWII.  Harry Turtledove really became the flag-bearer of the current field of writers starting with his Guns of the South, (Time-travelers equip the Confederacy with AK-47’s) and his incredible series of books that covered the South winning the Civil War, through WWI and WWII (Picture, if you will, trench warfare cutting across the United States in WWI and you get the idea).  Robert Conroy has stepped up recently as well with a number of wonderful stand-alone books set in WWII. 

The Steampunk genre is really an off-shoot of alternate history.  It provides a glimpse into a universe where advanced technology is introduced in the pre-Victorian era.  While Steampunk stands on its own, it also has strong roots with alternate history…a relationship all parties encourage.  Read Boneshaker by Cherie Priest and you will see an alternate world where zombies face zeppelins and new technology. 

I have found that some mainstream historians don’t see the value of this kind of literature.  They see it as trivial or in some way diminishing from "real" history.  I respectfully disagree.  Alternate History is most often built on hard historical study, with the changing of an instance or event to generate the story.  This kind of literature actually encourages a study of history with readers – which is something that most historians desire.  It gives us all an appreciation for how history is like a game of Jenga.  Remove the wrong part and the entire tower comes tumbling down. 

Alternate history historians like Giangreco's Hell to Pay, Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, have given new context to decisions like the dropping of the atomic bomb. While some authors tell the stories of these events, we are now seeing books emerge like this where historians give us a solid tangible history of what might have occurred.  I have a pet project I have been researching along these lines as well and find this kind of research exciting.  It bridges between alternate history fans and hard-core historians.   

If you have not explored this genre, I encourage it whole-heartedly.  The stories have impact on our world today.  If you read Turtledove’s Man with an Iron Heart on the surface it is a story about the Germans fighting on after Hitler’s death, waging a guerilla war against the occupying allies. The parallels between this and the insurgency in Iraq cannot be ignored or overlooked.   Books like this force us to put current events in perspective, and in many respects that is the essence of what historical study drives to achieve. 

If nothing else, you’ll enjoy the ride!