Why I Am Not A Successful Alternate-History Writer


So, it’s an alternate history where everything is like it was here, only instead of the gold standard countries drifted to the gold dragon standard. It’s 1893. Industrial-capitalism-driven finance, as embodied by J.P. Morgan, has after decades of fighting reached a tentative but solid-looking peace accord with the nascent environmental movement, as embodied by John Muir. But danger is mounting. The Granger movement is pressing hard for the re-adoption of silver dragons as a foundation for currency outside South Asia. And the so-called Treaty of Oyster Bay may collapse against the deepening of the balance-of-payments crisis in Washington. As Grover Cleveland fends off appeals from the Bryan wing of his own party, and arranges his own secret and possibly illicit cancer surgery, Muir and Morgan have to work out whose sides they want to be on, and what they want to press for, before the endangered North American Gold Dragon is lost forever.

My fellow reading group members described it as featuring “oh Lord even more words?” and bringing up memories of “how much my head hurt as a kid when I asked my parents what it meant that, like, France was buying Japanese Yen”. Other comments included, “do the dragons even do anything?” and “did you have to call it the Bland-Allison Act? Is that even a joke? What is this thing?” and, in what I consider a glowing review, “can you at least have a dragon eat Prescott Hall or something? Please?”

In the first sequel it’s 1898 and rumors of a major cache of gold dragons coming out of the Yukon threatens to scramble the worldwide recovery from the Panic of 1893. The rush of American settlers into northwestern Canada presents great new challenges to the meaning of Canadian — and Alaskan — national identity, just as biologists find their understanding of the development of dragons challenged by the extreme-cold-weather breed’s anomalous sides. The new potential for Canadian self-determination calls into question the whole constitutional settlement of the British Empire, at a time when Australia and New Zealand’s needs for local constitutions and the stirrings of a new war with the Boers occupy Her Majesty’s Government, and the scientific minds try to square paradigm-shattering data about evolution and thermodynamics into their worldview.

My beta readers describe the roughed-out novel as “incredibly many words between cool parts that have dragons” and “are you working out some crazypants obscurant flame war with somebody about this Lord Carnavon [sic] guy?” And when I bring new chapters to a group session at the bookstore people’s eyes light up and they hide behind the Coffee Table Art books and do that thing where they playfully feign tossing manuscript pages into the fireplace! The kidders. They have to know by now I know there’s a grate over the fireplace.

Now the second sequel is set in the early 1910s and pulls back from the questions of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Dominions and prospective Dominions to more closely examine United States monetary policy. Between the influence of the Populist movement on American politics and the passing of people like Morgan, the public’s coming around to accept the need for regularized, boring systems that can handle dragon-related crises instead of trusting that Great Men will somehow be found when needed. And so it’s a struggle among the followers and students of the previous generation’s greats to exactly work out the parameters of the Federal Preserve System.

I only have this in a roughed-out form, mostly notes on my laptop. But already Scrivener is so excited by this it’s set my computer on fire and several of its programmers have come around my house to holler at me at six in the morning, every morning, for a week now. But even they have to admit that the couple chapters I’ve written “don’t read nearly so much like a manifesto as I expected” and “wait, so, like, are banks just keeping dragons in vaults or something? Like, can tellers go in back during lunch and pet one? Do bank robbers come out with nests of dragons?” I don’t know, but that might be interesting if I can find space for a side story that petty in what I figure’s going to be a 700,000-word book!

Now I know all this sounds great, but I know my readers are trying to be nice so the stories aren’t that compelling. At that I still think the publisher might not have thrown me out on the street and kicked me in the back if I hadn’t insisted on naming it The Origin of Specie trilogy. I’m sorry, but her suggestion of The Gilded Age is a great title but it would need a story set in the 1870s to make the title sensible and I can’t think of anything sensible for that era.

PS no stealing my story, I e-mailed it to myself in an attachment I haven’t opened yet so I can prove it’s mine.

Popeye Space Ark 2000 Pinball … Reconsidered


A while back I talked about the backstory Python Anghelo designed for the pinball machine Popeye Saves The Earth. I hesitate to call the backstory “crazypants”. I don’t want to wear out a good term by overuse. Also “crazypants” is inadequate to describe it. “Crazypants, crazyshirt, crazysocks and crazyshoes, crazyblazer, crazysheltered from the crazybuckets of crazyrain by a craizywaistcoat and crazyumbrella” gets more at it. Somehow Anghelo, most famous for Joust, had a strange vision for Popeye. Joust you’ll remember as the “medieval knights in space using ostriches to bludgeon pterodactyls” game.

The plan sketched out had Popeye bothered by the hypodermic needles Olive Oyl finds on the beach. So he buys the Glomar Explorer. With the help of Al Gore and H Ross Perot, he launches a space ark with two of every animal in the world. They journey to such worlds as Odorsphera, where the natives’ lack of noses causes the planet to smell terrible; a planet of spotted and striped people; a planet where everything is red; unisex gay world; and a planet with three moons. Finally they land back on an Earth ruined by total ecological collapse, with the few, disease-ridden human survivors resorting to cannibalism. Was the game as fun as this preliminary concept suggested?

Back in the 90s we didn’t think so. Usenet newsgroup rec.games.pinball judged this Bally/Midway table to be the worst thing humanity had accomplished in at least 875 years. It was so awful the group sentenced the game to the ignominy of having its name rendered without vowels. I believe they’re still calling it “P-p-y-” over there. And I’m not joking: nobody on the group questioned whether “y” served as a vowel in this context.

Cute picture of Popeye, Bluto, and a number of animals looking concerned or indifferent on a ship, with the Earth and Moon in the background.
Side art on the pinball game Popeye Saves The Earth. I do not know how Popeye (right) accidentally sailed to translunar space.

But I got to play the game this past week. I wanted to share my impressions of how the game lives up to its crazystuff potential. Sad to say, not much of the concept makes it into the game. What is there is just enough to baffle people who hadn’t read the nine-page document. For instance, there’s nothing in the game suggesting Popeye is going into space with any of the animals. Sure, the art on the side of the machine shows the Earth and Moon in the background of Popeye’s ark. But it also shows an eager young raccoon perched atop a giraffe who’s weighted down with a heavy, Funky Winkerbeanesque ennui. That could mean anything.

Animals bunched up on a space-going ship. At the back of the ship Bluto is being whalloped by various animals including a monkey.
Side art on the pinball game Popeye Saves The Earth. Far right, Bluto is whacked by a monkey.

There is an environmental theme, with Bluto locking up animals that Popeye frees. And there’s these Bluto’s Cartel shots. In them Bluto does stuff like put bricks up across the video-display scoreboard. This the game explains as Bluto’s Earth Pavers. It’s always nice to see a shout-out to Usenet foundational group alt.pave.the.earth. But if Bluto is paving the Earth one cinder block at a time, he’s really not much of an environmental menace. Over a normal working life he might be able to pave, like, something the size of Rhode Island with cinder blocks. But that’s not so much of the Earth. Also he’s building walls, which are vertical. The surface of the earth is more horizontal, like a floor. If Popeye left him alone he’d probably screw up some wind farms and make a nasty shadow but that’s it.

Another Cartel challenge makes it look like you, as Popeye, and Bluto, as Bluto, are winching control wheels to drown the other in a tank of water. That’s a misunderstanding created by not paying attention when the challenge gets started. In fact you and Bluto are trying to drown one another in a tank of oil.

And that kind of describes the game. The playfield has a lot of fun art of animals lounging around or singing to themselves. There’s also tiger- and lion-men paying shuffleboard with turtles who are either really big or the lion- and tiger-men are really small. Lion- and tiger-men really aren’t endangered. Heck, they take over Pittsburgh one week every summer for Anthrocon. They don’t need Space Popeye. The game is full of mysterious asides like this. Like, I get why Wimpy would put a bottle of catsup in a champagne bucket, but why would Popeye put a wrench in his?

Fun play field art of animals in comic action, mostly. Lion- and tiger-men playing shuffleboard with turtles, an iguana sprawled out over the 'Special' score light, that sort of thing.
Playfield detail on the pinball game Popeye Saves The Earth. I’m not sure the penguin in the center at the bottom is doing a fan dance with a tablecloth but cannot rule it out.

The video screen has some fun animations, must say. And the voice acting is not bad, considering that everybody born before 1980 learned how to do Popeye’s voice except the people hired to do Popeye’s voice in projects like this. And the game with everything working is not so bad, though I bet it broke all the time in annoying ways in actual arcades. And I could point out gameplay issues that make you hate everybody who takes pinball seriously, but why? The game probably deserves to have at least two of its vowels restored.

Koala on the edge of the ship, staring down. I may be reading a sense of despair into its expression that the artist didn't intend.
Side art on the pinball game Popeye Saves The Earth. The koala contemplates the complicated ways of fate while sitting at the prow of a space-going ship.

So, in conclusion, may I point to the side art again and ask: is that koala on the edge of Popeye’s space ark contemplating suicide? It’s a strange and disappointing game, but humanity has probably done worse things in the last 875 years. Well, 886 at this point.

Popeye Space Ark 2000 Pinball … I Don’t Even Know


The 1994 pinball game _Popeye Saves The Earth_, as photographed by Allen Shope at the Internet Pinball Database.

Popeye Saves The Earth was a pretty mediocre 1994 pinball game designed by Python Anghelo, the famous game designer behind Joust, one of the leading early 80s video games about bludgeoning people with ostriches. Recently I acquired a document purporting to be Anghelo’s proposed theme for this pinball through the elaborate process of looking up the game on the Pinball database. It’s a mere nine-page document and yet it’s the most wonderfully deranged Popeye-related thing I’ve seen in weeks. I recommend you read the whole thing, so let me share the good parts, so you can go on to be disappointed.

Anghelo observes that based on King Features’ strips it “became very obvious to me that Popeye The Sailor has not kept up with the times”. This is true. After a long and successful run, Popeye left pop culture after 1985, when creation of the Fox Network meant there weren’t independent TV stations running two-hour cartoon blocks of his work anymore, and he hasn’t been let back in since. How does Anghelo set up a new adventure for the sailor man?

He sets Popeye as 50, comfortable and bored, watching “the Simpsons, reruns of the Flintstones”, even Mickey Mouse, as we all did in the early 90s, but “consuming too much spinach brew”. Olive Oyl is his “still faithful wife”, tending one of the world’s largest seashell collections, and Swee’Pea is in his early 30s, having retired as a Navy pilot and facing the tough job market by considering a degree in astrophysics, which has always been a license to print money. Bluto’s now an oil tycoon, despite a recent oil spill, and “The Sea Hag runs and owns a Japanese/Norwegian fishing fleet that kills whales [and] porpoises”. I kind of appreciate a multinational just being open about it. I imagine its Chief Financial Officer appearing on CNBC — no Indiegogo for an outfit this organized — to say, “Hi. I’m Jeanene Evil. Give us money and we will kill whales.”

Anyway, Popeye goes fishing and finds nothing but plastic bags, tires, styrofoam cups and all that. Olive, seashell-hunting, gets gobs of tar from Bluto’s oil spill all over her feet, tangled in a drift net, and “stung by a discarded syringe that washed up on the beach”, because if you’re playing pinball, it’s because you want to see a tarballed, net-stuck Olive Oyl jabbed by a discarded syringe. Popeye heads to the United States for some answers, and finds pollution in New York harbor, a devastated shrimping industry in New Orleans, and depleted tuna stocks in Los Angeles, and sees Jacques Cousteau, Diane Fosse, Carl Sagan, Peter Moyers, and Greenpeace calling for a stop to the insanity, so, he calls in some favors from Vice-President Al Gore, sells the rights to show Popeye cartoons in 1994 for enough scratch to buy Howard Hughes’s Glomar Explorer (“the biggest ship on Earth”), and mounts it atop eight shuttle boosters as Popeye’s Ark 2000. I should warn you, from here the proposed backstory for this pinball game gets a little nutty.

So Popeye goes to all the continents, gathering, for example, from North America two buffalos, two bald eagles, two chipmunks, two manatees, “and the last 2 condors in existence”, which makes him sound like kind of a jerk, because we might need those chipmunks. Somehow, Popeye’s plan to launch chipmunks into outer space on the Glomar Explorer is “heavily ridiculed”, but Popeye answers everyone’s doubts “in an extraordinary two-hour telecast underwritten by Texas billionaire Ross Perot”, because the one thing that absolutely shuts down widespread ridicule of an insane plan is the timely intervention of any billionaire Texan. Also they blast off right away.

Popeye “heads for Saturn — the biggest planet in the solar system, and enters its orbit to use as a sling out of the solar system”, which suggests that despite his game-design prowess Anghelo had only a layman’s understanding of orbital dynamics and couldn’t develop it into something realistic. That or maybe Jupiter was stolen by a space chipmunk? I don’t know.

As the good Professor Holkus-Polkus warned Popeye “over Spinach Schnopps”, out past Pluto the Ark enters a “terrible river of space storms … a spatial gulfstream of whitewater rivers that flow between solar systems and galaxies”, so soon, Popeye’s Ark “travels in one week to places that comets and pulsars travel in 100 billion light years”, which is pretty good for the Glomar Explorer weighted down by manatees and chipmunks.

On the 99th planet they set down, in one of the ten seas, to discover the planet stinks. The leader has “three eyes, a huge mouth, and no nose. Popeye notices no one has noses, or a sense of smell! The planet is Odorsphera”, and as people who have noses and visit Odorsphera suffer and die “from unknown causes”, the inhabitants helpfully kill them first. Rather than have his nose chopped off Popeye relaunches into space, with a pair of three-eyed tarantulas as a gift.

From here Anghelo’s proposal gets a little sketchy, suggesting the exact play of this pinball game hadn’t quite been worked out. On the next planet, the King is spotted on the front, striped on the back, and everyone is either spotted or striped, while Popeye and his crew are neither and so feel the eye of striped/spotted-on-plain prejudice. “Next planet — red planet — everything red”, which tries to bridge the gap between innovative pinball design and haiku.

Next, at the top of page eight, comes a paragraph I must quote in its entirety:

Alternative planet — unisex — gay — do not want pairs of heterosexuals. Jeremy, explore this one.

I do not know what Jeremy discovered. I imagine that if I were Jeremy, my report on exploring this one would have been, “We’re trying to design a pinball game based on Popeye”, with maybe a mention that Popeye’s traditional strengths have been more in the fields of “sailing” and “eating spinach” and “punching things” and less in “chipmunk-bearing spaceflights to Unisex Gay World”.

Other planets include Canibalia, where animals are extinct and higher mental beings use lower mental beings as servants and protein; one with a “high society of animals — eagles” that don’t allow people; “no water planet, 3 moon planet, female planet, planet with 2 suns — never nighttime” and the admonition, “Jeremy, go crazy with these”. Were I Jeremy, my response would be: “Go?”

Anghelo’s proposed pinball narrative goes on to note Popeye’s been travelling too long, the animals are multiplying, the ship needs repair and, oh, yes, “Somehow incorporate Bluto and Sea Hag in the ship’s adventures”.

So, the game would have Popeye “leave the cosmic river and return on a cosmic shortcut through the Pavronian system of interstellar gaseous storms” back to Earth, a polluted, oily, cloudy Odorsphera-like planet with no animals and widespread death, disease, and cannibalism among surviving humanity, which really captures the heart of both Popeye and pinball. The animals are released back into their natural habitats, where they had been taken from before all their species were extinct in the wild, “and there is great joy!”, naturally.

I admit this is staggering, and I can even kind of see where elements of this might have made it into the final produced machine, which folks managed to play nearly two-thirds of a game on before finding it was too dull to continue. But it’s also impressively wild, and I have to wonder what the backstory is like for his other games, specifically, Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Ball.

Also, somewhere in the multiverse, someone — I’m thinking maybe even Jeff Wayne — has turned this outline into a prog-rock opera, and I’d like to see the album art Roger Dean made for it.