Monday, June 18, 2018

Podcast Review: Literary Wonder and Adventure Show

I found the Literary Wonder and Adventure podcast last year while searching for something to keep me company on a fossil-hunting trip to the Catskills. After listening to a few episodes I discovered that host Robert Zoltan and his snarky companion Edgar the raven make perfect travel companions.

Zoltan (who is also the show’s producer, writer, composer, sound-mixer, editor and a dozen other occupations) travels the multiverse with Edgar (who is, well, a black-feathered bird. Voiced by Zoltan. I’m sure he does other things too. Maybe ), in their dimension-hopping domicile, the Dream Tower, in quest of speculative fiction authors to interview.  Interview, though, may not be an accurate description,  because the show is more than simple question-and-answer.   Each episode is a full conversation with many asides and much meandering. But it is meandering in an interesting way, leading you places you might never have thought to look.  Zoltan and his guests discuss the art of writing speculative fiction, often via the works of classic authors like Robert E Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, J. R. R. Tolkien, and more. They illuminate the lives of classic pulp and fantasy authors in ways that you might not have seen.

Zoltan’s guests also talk about their own writing and creative inspirations, which can become quite personal at times. I was especially drawn to author Scott Oden’s description of that timeless, almost child-like feeling of discovery one gets from the creative process. I also related all too well to his past struggles with dark feelings and how writing was a life raft in that tumultuous sea.  

I’m interested in the history of speculative fiction, so I also quite enjoyed Zoltan’s two-part conversation with author Allen Steele about the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Though SF has its roots in the works of Jules Verne, J.-H. Rosny,  H. G. Wells and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (and, one could argue, Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World), Steele suggests that the genre’s modern incarnation really began with Hugo Gernsback’s 1926 publication of Amazing Stories and fully crystallized with the 1939 issue of Astounding Stories, which featured some of the first stories from early SF legends like A. E. van Vogt, Isaac Asimov, C. L. Moore and others.

 As I drove through upstate New York in search of stromatolites and petrified Devonian trees, I felt as though I was listening to old friends having a scintillating conversation in the back seat.  The podcast’s format may not be for everyone, especially those looking for a typical Q & A, but it is greatly rewarding if you are a fan of more casual, discussion-format shows. Episodes warrant a second- and a third and fourth- listen to pick up and follow all the places Robert and his guests go.
Each installment is bookended with vignettes from Robert and Edgar’s latest adventure across the dimensions. In the course of the show, they’ve fended off vicious pterodactyls, tricked a revenge-seeking orc, dealt with a high-tech vacuum cleaner that has achieved inconvenient sentience and lived through even stranger oddities.

Zoltan spices the podcast with audio adventures, usually featuring his Leiberesque sword and sorcery rogues Dareon and Blue. These are fully realized productions brought to life with full sound effects and ambient music on par with classic radio dramas,. In their first adventure, Dareon and Blue tangle with a strange merchant and his eerie, sorcerously cerulean lamp. In their second outing, the pair protects a ship of traders on a journey through a sweltering river delta choked with mangroves, flies and dormant eldritch horrors.

The show’s theme song (composed and performed by Zoltan, of course. I doubt Edgar has the dexterity to work a synthesizer) is appropriately big and bombastic. It is the overture to a lone rider and horse galloping across the steppes to clash swords with a demon awakened from eons-long slumber in a forgotten tomb. Or perhaps it is the accompaniment to an Art Deco rocketship trailing fire as it launches from a Martian outpost to explore the star-dappled infinite night. Whatever it is, it’ll definitely get stuck in your head.

 Coming in at over an hour each episode, the Literary Wonder and Adventure Show is a great podcast for listening to on a long trip in quest of ancient sawtooth sharks (or any other type of quest, really), or while you’re writing, drawing or engaged in more esoteric creative pursuits.

You can find the Literary Wonder and Adventure Show at the Dream Tower Media website.

Episodes are also available on Youtube. On Itunes. Or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Colobops Noviportensis: A Triassic reptile from Connecticut with a powerful bite

My reconstruction of Colobops noviportensis, inspired by the Satanic Leaf-Tailed Gecko, Uroplatus phantasticus. And yes, that IS one of those "Silkhenge" spider egg structures (first discovered in the Amazon back in 2014) in the lower left.

Here's an article I wrote for the Spring issue of Tracks and Trails, the Dinosaur State Park newsletter.

The Triassic was a time of evolutionary experimentation. In the wake of the mass extinction at the end of the Permian that killed 90% of life on Earth, only a few unspecialized species remained.  As animals adapted to the vacant ecological niches, they evolved a staggering variety of unusual forms: vacuum cleaner-faced aquatic herbivores, fan-winged gliders, long-necked “living fishing poles” and many more. The Triassic creatures probably most familiar to Dinosaur State Park’s visitors are the crocodile-like phytosaurs and the giant flat-bodied amphibian metoposaurs. But these are only the most visible members of the strange Triassic fauna. The largest and flashiest creatures. Like our modern ecosystems, there was much more diversity on the small scale lurking in the low scrub along the river’s edge, scampering among the pine branches, burrowed under roots and in the mud. Case in point, the palm-sized Triassic lizard Colobops noviportensis which had a bite unique among reptiles both living and extinct.

Colobops- whose name means “shortened face” because of its small snout-  is known from a single mostly complete skull about 2.5 centimeters long found in a sandstone outcrop near Meriden, Connecticut. Initially discovered during roadwork in 1965, the fossil was not examined scientifically until 1993. At first, it was thought to be a distant relative of the New Zealand tuatara, but a re-examination this year made with a computer-generated 3-D scan of the skull placed it in the archosauromorpha, the group that eventually led to dinosaurs, birds, and crocodiles. Furthermore, Colobops is also thought to be one of the earliest members of the rhynchosaurs, an odd group of beaked herbivorous reptiles- though Colobops itself did not show signs of having had a beak.
The major features that make Colobops unique are its large jaw muscles called adductors. Though the muscles themselves have not fossilized, their size and strength can be inferred from the exaggerated size of the temporal fossae- the holes on the back of the skull behind the eyes that accommodated them (in humans, the temporal fossae are the depressions on the sides of the skull that run from the temples down under the cheekbones). Colobops’ adductors are, relative to its skull size, proportionately larger than those of any other known reptile, prehistoric or modern. This means that Colobops had- again relative to its size- a more powerful bite than any other Triassic reptile.
Another unusual feature of this creature is the tip of its snout which is reinforced with partially-overlapping nasal bones, a trait it shares with its larger rhynchosaur cousins. This toughened nose is also similar to the snout of the unrelated modern-day amphisbaena or legless lizard and thus may indicate some level of digging behavior in Colobops or at least an adaptation to frequent blunt force to the tip of its skull.

Since no teeth were preserved in the fossil, it’s not known exactly what Colobops ate. However, its unusual jaw adaptations suggest that it had a specialized diet rather than the generalist feeding habits of many modern small lizards. Perhaps it ate tough-shelled burrowing invertebrates. Or, if it was herbivorous like its larger rhynchosaur cousins, maybe it consumed small tubers and other tough plant parts.

While phytosaurs, metaposaurs and other odd megafauna may dominate our vision of Triassic Connecticut, Colobops and its unique jaw structure remind us that there were just as many unique animals lurking in the undergrowth, though much of their diversity has been hidden from us due to the dearth of good fossils.


Monday, June 4, 2018

Review: Fauldon's Dream and the Karier of the Task by Enoch K. Enns

Mr. Fauldon is jobless and desperate (a situation many readers can relate to, I’m sure). While wandering the city streets trying to make ends meet, he comes across a curious shack offering employment. Nervous but hopeful, Mr. Fauldon steps inside and soon finds himself transported to the strange world of Euphora, tasked with the role of “carrier”- a job and title he won’t come to fully understand until late in his journey.

Mr. Fauldon is a passive character. Rather than taking decisive action, he typically allows things to happen to him instead. Any time he tries to question his circumstances, he is met with light mockery or dismissal by his apparently omniscient companion, Mr. Knowington. To a reader used to modern fantasy with active, decisive heroes this can feel odd, even tedious at times. But Fauldon’s passivity is clearly a very deliberate decision on Enns’ part rather than simply bad writing. The story seems to be an homage to Victorian-era adventure fiction in the spirit of H. Rider Haggard, where the protagonist was led on what amounted to a “sightseeing tour” of the strange world they ended up in. The reader is meant to focus not on Mr. Fauldon but on the lush, strange world of Euphora. And there is certainly plenty to see. There are mushroom people and golems made of fire, magic silk that can weave portals through the ground, playing cards enchanted with powerful, djinn-like beings, and many more, even odder things.

Enns’ writing style is deliberately anachronistic. It is at times ebullient, at times casual. There are shades of L. Frank Baum, E. R. Eddison, and James P. Blaylock’s more whimsical adventures. The author’s frequent asides throughout the story are reminiscent of Elizabethan-era plays, a resemblance that is further reinforced by the chapter titles which are all labeled by “scenes”.

In his afterword, Enns’ says that there are more adventures to come in the world of Euphora, so hopefully readers will be able to explore deeper into the stories of the characters we have seen so far. The writing style is definitely not for those looking for a typical modern fantasy or pulpy action adventure. But fans of Victorian and early-20th-century fantasy fiction will find much to enjoy in Fauldon’s Dream.

You can get a copy of Fauldon's Dream here.