Pluralistic: 25 Aug 2020

Today's links

Ballistic Kiss (permalink)

I can still remember the delight with which I dug into Richard Kadrey's first Sandman Slim novel, more than a decade ago. So hard-boiled! So original! Such a deep dive into esoterica and high weirdness for this urban fantasy novel! I was hooked.

The best blurb was William Gibson calling it a "deeply amusing, dirty-ass masterpiece."

Now, ten more books down the line, it's gotten even better.

I'm talking about "Ballistic Kiss," the 11th Sandman Slim, which drops today.

I love hardboiled fiction, but it's so hard to sustain. The hardboiled hero's arc is to fight a series of ever-tougher battles, until they just…run out of headroom. Once you've saved the city, and the nation, and the world, and the universe…where do you go?

Some hardboiled series just sit pat, having the (anti)hero repeatedly contend with the same kinds of challenges in book after book. This wears thin.

Others try to keep upping the stakes. This gets silly.

But the best ones do what Kadrey's doing here: they go internal.

Sandman Slim (AKA James Stark) was part of a circle of LA magic practicioners who sold him out and sent him to hell. Once in hell, Stark became a gladiator, pit-fighting demons for the amusement of the princes of hell.

He was so good at it that he was drafted to become an assassin, equipped with a magical weapon that would allow him to kill demons, and he became part of Hell's power-struggles, bumping off his boss's rivals — and planning his escape.

The first book tells the tale of Stark's return to LA, his discovery that his coven had seen off Alice, the love of his life, and the terrible revenge he wreaks upon them. In subsequent volumes, Stark faces an ever-escalating series of challenges.

He fights monsters. Power elites. Angels. Demons. Extradimensional terrors. Gods. He goes back to Hell. He escapes.

In other words, he follows that antihero arc of fighting ever-escalating battles against increasingly tough opponents.

In large part, that's because of Kadrey's incredible dedication to esoterica. So much of what makes Tolkien and Howard great fantasy writers is their deep research into primary sources of lore and legend.

So many of the writers who followed are just rebrewing their thrice-brewed teabags.

Kadrey's got research for days. He's really into esoterica: about LA, about magic and eschatology, about monsters. It imbues the whole series with so much originality and credibility.

But back to Ballistic Kiss. You see, Kadrey's run out of headroom for Stark, too. There's just no more worlds to conquer that raise the stakes from the dizzying heights he's brought us to over a decade.

There are other pulp writers who hit this wall – I'm thinking of John D MacDonald and the Travis McGee books. When McGee got to a certain point, MacDonald made the fights with the bad guys the B-plot to the books.

The A-plot, where all the stakes were, were McGee's fights with his own demons.

That's where Ballistic Kiss goes. While this is about fighting demons and juggling love affairs with a difficult ex- and an exciting nonbinary love interest, it's primarily about mental health.

Basically, it's anxietypunk. Or depressionpunk.

But it's not mopey or slow. That's the beauty of incorporating this motif into pulp fiction.

As Gibson says, pulp writers are part of a tradition stretching back to Dashiell Hammett, and they "can do fucking plot." They've "still got wheels on their tractors."

Texture is all about contrasts. The seriousness of the Stark's internal journey contrasts perfectly with the high weird of his supernatural battles.

I loved where Kadrey started with this series, but I love where he's going even more.

Telepresence Nazi punching (permalink)

Before doomscrolling, there was Doom. And before Doom, there was Castle Wolfenstein, a Nazi-punching training sim created by time-travelers from the 2020s who traveled back to 1981 to prepare us for this very moment.

Social distancing has made punching Nazis impractical, but you can stay in practice with Cardboard Wolfenstein 3D, a tabletop telepresence game where you pilot a little robot around a cardboard maze, punching Nazis with a robotic arm.

It's based on the Smartibot platform: a robotic telepresence phone case that lets you turn Lego, cardboard, balsa wood and other rapid prototyping materials into low-tech versions of Snowden's wheelieboy.

Ross Atkin created the game as a demo of Smartibot's capabilities; he's set up several live tournaments that you can dial into and play this week and next week (the first one kicks off in just a couple hours!)

He's hinted that future versions might equip the cardboard Nazis with their own AI-piloted Smartibots, making them harder to punch.

I love a challenge!

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago American obesity skyrockets, 73% obese or overweight by 2008

#15yrsago Court: DMCA can't prohibit third-party repairs

#15yrsago Neil Gaiman's new novel excerpt read by Lenny Henry

#15yrsago Chinese government mandating 3-hour caps on MMO playing

#15yrsago ItPlaysQuake: reviews of Quake-ports on odd hardware

#5yrsago Platform Cooperativism: a worker-owned Uber for everything

#5yrsago New Zealand gov't promises secret courts for accused terrorists;=11503094

#5yrsago GOP "kingmaker" proposes enslavement as an answer to undocumented migrants

#5yrsago German student ditches apartment, buys an unlimited train pass

#5yrsago BBC fires UK government's Meterological Office, opens up weather prediction to global firms

#5yrsago Samsung fridges can leak your Gmail logins

#1yrago Podcast: Barlow's Legacy

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Ross Atkin.

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 510 words (53153 total).

Currently reading: Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum.

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 14)

Upcoming appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla