Sunday, March 31, 2013

An additional thought regarding "Freeway Fighter"

Some people are no doubt wondering why I did not sound off on the matter of Freeway Fighter's artwork, an issue that is known to inflame the passions and set brother against brother.

You see, I am given to understand that some Past Readers have experienced critical thoughts regarding the artwork in this book and moreover that a minority of this disgruntled group have also seen fit to give form to those thoughts and publicly express them to others.

Let me not be misconstrued! I make no such criticism here. Construe me exactly on this, please. The archives indicate that the artist has in fact personally responded to such things before, pointing out that he was in a big rush when he drew everything 'cos he was called in at the last minute, and only had nine days to finish everything, and four of them were spent getting the broken branch in the foreground of this drawing just so.

You know the roller ruler come out for this one too.

Have you really looked at it though?
This is, in fact, one of my direst fears - that some day, someone I've mentioned will take umbrage at my churlish and unfair ribbing, point a just and knobbly finger directly at my shrivelled coward's heart and say to me: "And what, blogger, have YOU ever accomplished?"

"Nothing," I will gasp out between the sobs, "I have done nothing."

Illustrator Kevin Bulmer has precisely captured the moment when the bullets come shooting out of this gun. What have YOU done lately?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

#13 - "Freeway Fighter" (1985), by Ian Livingstone

The aluminium-foil ducts really give it that "B-movie" feel. 
Dateline: 1981
The scene is a cold, concrete-floored garage where STEVE and IAN write gamebooks. They are not yet billionaires. Rain rattles upon the iron roof.   A busted washing machine appears to have vomited its contents across one half of the garage, the foamy wash hemmed in by a dyke of sopping towels. A dusty black-board leans against the wall, a map of the Maze of Zagor marked up on it, variously smudged, scribbled on and over-written. There are two hammocks strung from the rafters. In the centre of the garage is a battered wooden picnic table, bearing a 1940s-era typewriter. Next to the typewriter, there lies a grimy tyre iron and an eyeless teddy bear. Unpainted war-game miniatures with missing heads and limbs are strewn everywhere.

STEVE is sitting at the typewriter, tapping hunt-and-peck at the keys, pausing occasionally to alternately sigh or glare skyward towards an uncaring God.

Metal rasps and graunches are heard as the roller door is raised. IAN enters.

STEVE: "Ian! Where've you been all afternoon! You're supposed to be helping me break this GANJEES scene."

IAN: "Oof, come off it, Steve! I've been down the pictures! Seen Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior - cor, it were a right blast! Top action, car chases, a fit bird in tennis gear, this film's got it all! One bloke gets his fingers chopped off trying to catch a metal boomerang, it's ace!"

STEVE: (annoyed) "Well, that's fine and well, but if you're not going to help me I'll take your name off the cover of Citadel of Monsters (working title). Now listen to this - suddenly, a big spooky face flies at your face. You throw yourself down on the ground and begin to feel frightened -- "

STEVE chews on the end of a pencil.  
(continuing) "I don't think it's intense enough. Maybe I should say very frightened. What do you think? You throw yourself down on the ground and begin to feel very frightened."

IAN: (offhandedly) "Very frightened, definitely."

STEVE: (nodding) "Yeah... mmm."

STEVE produces a bottle of Twink and begins daubing it upon the manuscript. Meanwhile, IAN paces up and down, visibly pumped up from watching Mad Max.

Moments pass, Ian suddenly jolts as if hit by a static shock.

IAN: "Here, I've just had a wizard notion, Steve!"

STEVE: (tongue protruding from corner of mouth as he hunches over the manuscript, twinking away) "And what would that be, Ian?"

IAN: "Listen, do you think we can get the license to do a Mad Max gamebook?"

STEVE:  (sighs, looks up) "Fat chance, mate. You know I wanted to get the license for Star Trek but I couldn't keep Roddenberry's assistant's assistant on the line long enough to even explain what a gamebook is! Don't even bother. Look though, there's no reason you can't do a gamebook about driving around the wasteland and just call it Mad Gordon or something."

IAN: "What a smashing idea! Yes, I'm definitely going to do that!"


And that, friends, is how the world came to have: FREEWAY FIGHTER
But as we shall see, the road from conception to reality can be rocky and bandit-harried...

Never thought I'd say it, but the American cover is better.


Well if you want a post-apocalyptic setting you need an actual apocalypse to get there and while there are many options, only a few are classics. Given the vintage ('85) you might expect that Ian would go for global thermonuclear war, but he obviously thought that was played out and you know what: he was right. So instead he went for a devastating pandemic which may seem pretty obvious to today's reader but I assure you was quite recherche in the mid-80s.

Ian decides to really throw Us Readers into the moment of the World's Doom by forgoing the FF-traditional title "BACKGROUND" and instead titling the passage:


This boundary-pushing format is then instantaneously abandoned in favour of the usual past tense narrative - somewhere along the creative highway the concept was turfed but the title remained, lingering uselessly like an outie belly-button. Ian tells us that actually the world of 2022 is super utopian, World War III was completely averted, East and West are cooling out together with a vodka and Coke, some kind of revolution in agriculture means no-one is hungry, and "increased mobility [has] led to people's greater understanding of one another." (Do not forget that the man went back-packing around Thailand to research Deathtrap Dungeon so he knows what's up)

Ian then says that 21 July was a hot day (everywhere?) and he remembers about the news bulletin idea and he tells us what was on the news that morning, which was basically that everything is great and "England is to play the United States in the World Cup final in Sydney" - no doubt this notion tickled him pink, but what must've seemed like a truly fantastical scenario in 1985, nowadays seems kind of more viable (except for the part about England making the final, obviously)

Okay so there's nothing in the news bulletin about an apocalypse anyway, but later that afternoon a killer virus breaks out in New York and four days later, 85 percent of the world's population is dead. As far as viruses goes this is over-achieving and I bet the virus had cause to regret it afterwards. Better to piss around for generations havin' a ball like the common cold, than burn yourself out from workaholism and leave nobody alive to infect afterwards. Take it from me, viruses, you gotta play it smart in the modern world.

I tell ya! Today's virus got it tougher than evah!

But anyway. Ian then labours through half a page in order to tell us that "Mad Max happens". Mad Max is such effective short-hand for this scenario that the author'/s annoyance at having to explain Mad Max from first principles is palpable. So I won't put myself to the same trouble because you already know the drill - one thing that struck me though was that Ian Livingstone describes the marauding wasteland gangs as "the new barbarians", which is also the title of an entertaining Italian film that coincidentally explores many of the same themes.

"The New Barbarians" is considered a snuff movie by fashion store mannequins.

To complete the circle, the trailer for The New Barbarians is, by chance or fate, a functional precis of the plot of Freeway Fighter (you can watch it in lieu of reading the rest of the post if you are in a rush).

Anyway, we established that Mad Max has happened. YOU are one of luckier people in this scenario, you eke out a comparatively civilised existence in a walled town called New Hope, that clings to some virtues of the vanished world. One day you are cooling out the garage tinkering with some shit and a couple of guys "from the town council" run in all pumped up about something they heard on the short wave. Somewhere to the south is another town called San Anglo and they called up to make a deal - 10,000 litres of petroleum in exchange for "grain and seeds". They tell you that a Dodge Interceptor will be kitted out with guns and a bunch of James Bond shit and suggest that you are just the man to volunteer to drive. You immediately agree, in accordance with the now well-established  tendencies of Fighting Fantasy protagonists (i.e. obedience to small town authorities, and a thriving death-wish).

By the by - it occurred to me on later reflection that the unspecified amount of grain you are delivering to San Anglo has to be able to fit into a highly modified 1984 Dodge Interceptor, which is a two-door and you couldn't put a baby in the back seat even if you folded it, whereas it is clearly stated that you will be driving a petrol tanker back with ten thousand litres in it.

The Interceptor - it fits exactly one sack of grain, propped up in the passenger seat like a person.
Gotta be a trap, right? Who's gonna trade ten thousand litres of Texas Tea for three handfuls of trail mix? Gotta be a trap.

Rolling Up My Dude

First up there is an exciting innovation in the Character Sheet for Freeway Fighter as it includes a field for "Driver's Name", which to my delight had been filled out already by a previous imaginaut:

Dartin Shot. They call me "Star". As in "star shot". Which means, like, "good shot".
I am good at shots. Am like a Hollywood star, of shots. Shot celebrity.
I can shoot darts.
Okay seeya.
And here are Mr. Shot's stats, they are okay:

SKILL - 10
LUCK - 8

You also get to roll stats for your vehicle:


This is basically just SKILL and STAMINA for cars. The Interceptor also gets its own character sheet which is pretty sick:

Come on, they're not called "Spare Wheels" you damn nerds. Do some research.
Since some punk kid had already written on (and carefully shaded) parts of my DODGE INTERCEPTOR SPECIFICATION, I got my pencil out and under "Car Modifications" wrote:

In my version of Freeway Fighter, Dartin Shot threw away the grain.

The Adventure

Something felt very familiar to me about this adventure, mainly because I have seen Mad Max, but also because I have driven road trips before. Your main concerns in Freeway Fighter are basically the same as driving inter-city in the real world, i.e.

1) Am I Gunna Run Out Of Petrol, and;
2) Those Other Assholes On The Road, plus;
3) Am I Gunna Get A Speeding Ticket.

But oh yeah, we can scratch #3, because in the lawless badlands of the hollowed world, of course you will not get a speeding ticket. Dartin Shot, being a "glass half-full" kind of dude, devotes significant time and mental energy to this consideration:

"Despite the hazard of having to avoid abandoned cars, the highway is wide enough for you to gather plenty of speed. It's exciting to drive so freely, without fear of being hauled in by the police for violating some traffic regulation or other. "

What a refreshing attitude! Contrast this with that other well-known work of post-apocalyptic fiction, Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Well, I think we can agree that the guy in that book is a right gloomy sod and no mistake.

You walk out in the gray light and stand and you see for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The BLIND DOGS of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like GROUND-FOXES in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” 

This guy resolutely refuses to see the "upside" of the collapse of civilisation/all-moral-boundaries. Does the protagonist in The Road ever take a moment to appreciate life? Not really. But look what he's getting away with - no laws, no limits - you can wee wherever you want - you can take the shopping cart out of the supermarket car-park and push it around with all your stuff in it, and you won't get in trouble.

But here's ya boy Dartin "Star" Shot again:

"The road is open and wrecked cars are an infrequent hazard. The speedometer reads well above the  maximum speed-limit that used to control the road, but you know that there is no chance of getting a speeding-ticket now."

He's still thinking about it! It's still a big deal for him. This is truly to "make lemonade when life gives you lemons".

When life gives you New Barbarians...  just take a moment to appreciate that at least there's no fukken five-oh breathin' down ya neck, ya feel me?

Anyway the first couple of encounters once you roll out the gates of New Hope are not much to write about. Dartin overhears a guy shooting at a dog and then drives past a phoney gas station which is pretending that it still sells gas, an obvious trap. Instead of falling for that one he goes to a McDonald's drive-in and pretends to order. "This is sick!" Dartin says to himself, "I can do whatever I want."

And he has another one of his Deep Thoughts further down the road when he notices shit is kind of run down.  "You didn't realise how much maintenance was needed to support civilisation." Nobody is mowin' the lawns or nothing! Shit is crazy.

People used to take a bit of pride, you know?

At last Dartin gets an overdue reality check when the RED CHEVVY on the cover rolls up on him with guns blazing. I couldn't be bothered so I used one of my four rockets, which allow you to instantly win combat. Dartin surveys the wreckage. "Who were these people and why did they attack you without warning?" he wonders. It's like topsy-turvy land out here! Dartin suddenly understands why the mechanics swapped his indicator lights and windscreen wipers for a hundred machine guns with infinite ammo.

Just then the radio fires up, someone from back at New Hope lets you know that a biker gang attacked the town and kidnapped the town leader, Sinclair, "so, ah, keep an eye out for them, okay hon?"

Given that this book was written by an Englishman in 1985, I can only conclude that the character of "Sinclair" is a reference to the great British inventor and lap-dance enthusiast, Sir Clive Sinclair.

You acknowledge the message and say goodbye - the prose in this section is so workmanlike that you get the impression that Dartin Shot doesn't really give a shit about Sinclair - Dartin just rolls his eyes and nonchalantly drops the receiver with a careless flip of the wrist. "Sinclair? That guy? Pffft."

Ian doesn't give much of a shit about Sinclair either, really.  If you tiki-tour around for a while and blow up a few goons you can find him locked up in a shack in an abandoned town. Your only interaction is that he tells you about the raid on New Hope and his kidnapping. Normally that sentence would segue into some information about... the raid on New Hope and Sinclair's kidnapping, but in this case all we know is that Sinclair TOLD us about it, i.e. we know the general topic of some words he said. Readers are generously invited to dip their brush into the rich palette of their own imagination and just go nuts conjuring up this gripping account for themselves!  A rare treat for Us Readers - but I wasn't feeling very inspired at the time, so my mental image of Sinclair's kidnapping was basically just the first ten seconds of this video:

Sinclair: "Oh no, 'Mad Max' is happening to meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee...!"

Then he fucks off on a Harley. You get one LUCK point.

Beyond that, there's a single, final off-hand reference to Sinclair on the winning paragraph 380, where you return to New Hope with the fuel tanker and the grubby post-apocalyptic urchins of that town throw a sad parade with three handfuls of confetti they've been hoarding. And, we are told, "if you managed to rescue Sinclair during your adventure, consider your mission a triumph." But if you didn't, hey, good job anyway. It's Mad Max out there, you're gonna lose your town mayor once in a while, right? People are over Sinclair already, I mean, he only invented the motherfukken ZX Spectrum.

I guess Ian wanted to add some higher stakes to the story beyond "will the town of New Hope manage to scam a butt-load of petrol", but why bother to introduce this sub-plot if you're gonna leave it so soggy? Let's be clear, Sinclair is no Mungo, not by a long shot.

Anyway, you have the general idea of this book already. You drive around and a bunch of dumb things happen, all of which are car-themed. e.g. you see a broken-down ambulance or a broken-down bus. You drive under a bridge and a guy on top of the bridge tries to drop a rock on you or something. I didn't really care about any of this stuff.

Notable Encounters

There's really only one encounter in this book which rings my bell, which is this guy, Leonardi.

It's Leonardi! Love that guy.
Leonardi and his pals have blockaded a road. Here's what happens when you reach the blockade:

Two armed men in leather uniforms approach you and tell you that the only way you will be allowed to drive any further south is to win a speed race along the straight road, against their ace driver. If you lose the race, you will be forced to turn back.

Okay, but... why? What's their motivation? Who knows! Ian is wracking his brain for car-themed encounters here. Do you know how hard it is to come up with a whole gamebook's worth of car-themed encounters? It's pretty hard.

So then Leonardi pulls up in an E-Type Jag and he winds down the window and looks at you and here is an exact transcription of what he says:

"Hi, my name's Leonardi. I used to play ball for the Mets, but now I race cars. Too bad you are driving that old trash can, but good luck anyway."

You then race up the road a little bit and the book tells us there are six people cheering at the finish line. If you lose, Leonardi will get out of his car and say:

"You're good, but you're just not good enough. You'd better turn around now and head back towards the canyon."

...leaving us none the wiser. You can also get into a fight with Leonardi and blow him up but you'd have to be kind of a dick to do that.

Failure, and a Long Walk

Anyway I didn't get to race Leonardi when I played, because I fell foul of #1 on that earlier list - I ran out of gas. In fact this is the most probable way of losing, you need to employ Bizarre Search Behaviour to scrounge five or six cans of petrol on your way to San Anglo or you get sent to paragraph 364 which basically says "too bad you ran out of petrol, guess you're walking home, lol".

It would be nice if the petrol scarcity thing was set up a bit better - just have a guy in New Hope warn you about conserving fuel or something, make you nervous right from the get-go since it is undeniably the biggest threat in the game.

Might coulda strapped a rocket launcher on one of these bad boys instead.


The inclusion of magically re-animated undead in this setting would have been a challenge to justify (while undoubtedly making for a better read). So, it will come as no surprise that:

This message is brought to you by That Skeleton with the Weird Bosom Portholes from The New Barbarians.

Before I explain what I counted instead, I should point out that it is hypothetically possible, however unlikely, that a female person or "Wo-man" might someday have cause to read this blog, and that this chimerical being, whom I have dared to imagine, might be dismayed by the sweaty-lidded Male Gaze inherent in my "SEXY DAMES Count", which you may recall stood in for SKELETONS way back when I wrote about Island of the Lizard King, sometime around the turn of the century.

It has been on my mind for these many intervening years that the Sexy Scales are very much askew and that there is a balance to be restored, a debt that must needs be redeemed.
Well, my Hypothetical Lady Readers - consider it paid in full:


(Editorial notes - listening to "I'm Too Sexy" is MANDATORY while reading this section)
(Yes, "on repeat", of course on repeat, why are you even asking)
(Okay if you're really that upset, you COULD listen to "Deeply Dippy" instead but it will make a lot less sense thematically)

The SLAMMIN' BODZ Report is brought to you by modern-day Right Said Fred.

Let the count-down begin!
(You are listening to the song, right?)

Chuck here takes great care of himself, all of his striations and individual muscle fibres are plainly visible and just pressed up against his straining, creaking skin like you would not believe. Tap on those pecs and they'll sound off like a couple of finely tuned timbales! We asked Chuck for the secret behind his amazing achievement, it turns out he attaches diving weights to his Uzi and also he always take the stairs.

That's another Fighting Fantasy:

Vincente "Kid Panther" Cobretti

Ladies, some of you out there prefer more of a dancer's physique, am I right? Don't interrupt me to agree. Well look no further than  the "Kid Panther", Vincente Cobretti. As the unacknowledged love-child of Lt. Marion Cobretti (Sly Stallone's character in Cobra) and whoever Olivia Newton John was playing in the video for Physical, he attributes his bod almost entirely to lucky genes.
"But I also got my own technique called Micro-Training!" he blurts. "This week I've been really focused on pumping up that vein in my left elbow pit."

The Total Micro-Training (C) System with Vincente "Kid Panther" Cobretti is available now on VHS and Betamax.


As the leader of a gang of New Barbarians, ANIMAL has made it to the very top of his profession. But he still makes time to keep his body in top condition by energetically beating strangers to death in unregulated lucha libre combats, or "pounding ass", as he describes it. "You better believe I am pounding ass day and night", he will state unequivocally when asked, and sometimes when not asked also.

Incredibly, ANIMAL has achieved -1.7% body fat, yes that's MINUS 1.7%. His body contains small amounts of the anti-matter form of fat, which scientists have not yet decided whether to call "anti-fat" or "taf". This also means that one sip of a thickshake would cause him to literally explode in a detonation three times more powerful than the destruction of Hiroshima. "It definitely keeps me on target in my intake control," Animal confided warmly to us. "Uh uh uh! No cheating!" he added with a throaty chuckle, waggling one deliciously muscular index finger from side to side.

Maximus Doombro

Maximus Doombro is a well-known local character, tooling about the wasteland in his instantly recognisable CHARIOT, a converted Toyota Hilux. We asked Maximus how he came up with his unique look.

"When the plague hit," he tells us, "me and some buddies holed up at a sauna called 'Centurions' where we always used to go, it was like a Roman-style place, just a fun place with a theme, you know."

"Eventually we ran out of tinned spaghetti and we had to go out foraging, and we didn't know what to expect, so we raided the costume closet and I found this gladiator helmet and some of the boys put on some legionary gear and we stepped out and said 'Hello, world! Here we are, this is us!' Well, we felt a bit silly at first, but you know, everybody in the wasteland has been really supportive, the kids like it when they see us, the parents are supportive, a lot of the dads ask me how they can get into it, it's just a bit of fun and colour for everyone."

The CHARIOT has bullet holes in the fuel tank, so it's pulled by a harnessed team of six gleaming body-builders, crawling on all fours with ball-gags stuffed into their drooling mouths.

"We each get one day a week riding in the back," Maximus explains, "it's fitness AND it's fun."
"And of course our friendship is stronger than ever!" he laughs. "Come on boys, mush, mush!"
And the CHARIOT is rolling again.


Well, that concludes the SLAMMIN' BODZ Report, I hope all of the heterosexual women out there thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt a bit strange while I was writing it and zooming in closely on the detail of all those incredible muscles, but this was one for the ladies and I will do anything to be fair.

Final Thoughts

Well I suppose it probably fairly clear that I found this book pretty boring and a bit rubbish. I feel like Ian Livingstone didn't enjoy writing it, and thus I didn't enjoy reading it. He was much more enthusiastic writing high fantasy and it shows. It's a shame that the book got fixated on the car angle because there is a lot of fun tropes you can play with in a post-apocalyptic setting (consider something more akin to the Fallout series - there's no reason why this book couldn't have been populated with bizarrely mutated animals and such to spice it up). This is also a contributing factor as to why it has taken me so many months to finish writing about the bleedin' thing.

Back in the day, of course, Ian had Steve Jackson to kick his arse for him...

Dateline, 1985

The scene is a breath-takingly beautiful, sun-lit conservatory full of rare tropical plants and exquisitely tasteful furnishings. This is where IAN and STEVE write gamebooks. A small fountain plashes endearingly. Two white tigers lounge together on the floor. Hot ladies are carrying drinks around and what-not. 

STEVE is stretched out in a sun-chair, reading a book about cryptography.

STEVE (looking up from his book): "I say, Ian, I dropped three hundred thousand pounds at the roulette table last night, I think we better put out another gamebook, what! How's that Mad Gordon thing coming along?"

IAN is seated at a mahogany table nearby. He looks up from a charcoal sketch he is working on. It is a manticore blazing a J.

Ian: (shrugs) "Oh, I dunno mate, I started it but... cars are boring. I got bored."

STEVE's eyes smoulder with rage, like lava from a magic volcano where a boss lives.

Steve: "That's the bloody attitude I've been telling you about! FINISH THE BOOK, IAN."

Ian: "Look mate, I'm really not bothered on this one --"

Steve: "Don't tell it to me, Ian. Tell to the Board of Directors when you hand in your resignation."

Ian: "Oo-er, I'll get cracking then, eh."

And then he finished it off in a big rush in one afternoon, and he couldn't even think of an extra 20 paragraphs about cars so he made it finish on paragraph 380. The End.