Tuesday, 20 September 2022

The Productive Tension Between 'Phallic Desire' and 'Messy Soup'

Randomly clicking on other people's blogroll links led me to two interestingly orthogonal posts - Chris McDowall on a 'Universal Hex Profile' and Zedeck Siew on D&D and taxonomy. The former could almost be a (unintentional) critique of the latter. On the one hand, we have a neat proposal to classify hexes on a hex map by using a system of four-letter codes; on the other, we have a bundle of accusations levelled against the 'phallic desire' of nerds and their obsession with taxonomy, and against fantasy worldbuilding in general and its reification of 'colonial epistemology' (which I think just means having clear and accurate bird's eye view maps). 

Of course (and, to be fair to Mr Siew, it's important to be clear that he's only reporting the views of others), the idea that the mere act of categorising and classifying things (or imposing 'concrete ontologies' on the world, if you prefer) represents 'phallic desire' or 'colonial epistemology' is complete bunkum: those activities are simply necessary elements of any project of organising pretty much anything, in whatever context. That colonial administrators found it necessary to categorise things and attempt to impose order in the territories they administered through clear maps is simply because they were human beings trying to get things done, regardless of what we might think of the motivations or consequences - and such exercises have of course been a feature of human political organisation since ancient Sumer or before (just as they are also a feature of plumbing, school teaching, medicine, football, staging plays, or any other activity of any complexity in which human beings might engage). 

As Siew himself makes plain, it is necessary for D&D to have fixed categories and taxonomies because the alternative - 'you just gotta deal with things being a messy soup, people are not lines of code, you gotta pay attention to everything in its own context' - poses too many logistical problems for anybody attempting to actually run a game. A DM needs to be able to rely on the fact that there is such a category of monster as [goblin] and it has [x characteristics], that there are such hexes as [mountainous] and they have [y characteristics], and so on, because the alternative would require too much time and mental bandwidth. This isn't 'phallic desire'; it's an ineluctable feature of trying to run a campaign of a role playing game. Denying that really just smacks of dilettantism. 

At the same time, it would be evident to anybody who had ever spent time with human beings that when they really enjoy a particular pastime and spend a lot of time thinking about it, they come to be able to identity wafer-thin distinctions within it through excessive familiarity. This is not a feature of nerds who like D&D; it's a feature of people who like things. Any hobby has this aspect; just listen to football fans discussing the difference between a 'false 9' and a 'trequartista' or jazz fans quibbling over the difference between hard-bop and post-bop. The idea that role playing games would or should be any different is plainly misguided.

But, of course, that is only half the story. Anyone would agree that there is something deeply banalifying about the nerdish tendencies to insist on conformity with specified characteristics and split hairs between taxons of every this, that and other thing. Having every goblin be just another goblin makes life easy, but is also deeply boring; reducing the dragon to a series of mere stats and numerical abilities is to deprive it of its mythic, symbolic power; having the thoul be the result of cross-breeding between monsters is way less interesting than attributing its existence to magic; and so on. A little bit of 'messiness' is necessary to prevent staleness and to imbue the game with something grander and more meaningful than an exercise in high fantasy pastiche. 

I wrote a post on that subject almost 15 years ago, and have returned to it on numerous occasions (see for example herehere and here); I think ultimately I have reached the conclusion that there is a tension between the so-called 'phallic desire' of the nerd and the 'messy soup' of reality, but that it is, in the end, a productive one. The creative D&D DM needs the latter so as to keep things fresh, but also needs the former to keep him grounded and prevent his engagement in fruitless flights of fancy - he needs to be inventive, but never so inventive that he loses sight of the fact that D&D is a game and not novel-writing, speculative anthropology or historical research. 

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that, rather than stultifying creativity, the imperatives of 'phallic desire' spur it on, because the need for things to be able to make sense at the table - to be, let's use that word, gameable - acts as a kind of crucible or sieve for all of our frivolous imaginative antics, sifting out the good ideas and forcing the abandonment of bad ones. This in turn creates an iterative, almost Darwinian feedback process whereby the ideas are refined and shaped through reflection and repetition. What we end up with is the best of both worlds - the right combination of what works logistically, leavened by fresh flavours. 

Wednesday, 14 September 2022

Ranking Vance's SF and Fantasy Novels

It is fundamentally pointless and also a category error to rank books, works of art, or pieces of music. But it's fun all the same.

These rankings are given subject to the same proviso as yesterday: I've not been able to get my hands on a copy of The Five Gold Bands, Vandals of the Void, To Live Forever, and The Languages of Pao. My assumption is that these books would be low down the list anyway; Vance definitely underwent a radical improvement beginning in the mid-late 60s, and anything written before that is likely to be pretty standard hard-boiled Ray Bradbury-esque fare. I could of course be wrong. 

The rankings are subject to the additional proviso: this is about Vance's novels, not short story collections.

First, the big question: which is Vance's best series? This will not include the Cugel novels, the 'Big Planet' ones, or Ports of Call/Lurulu; the first and last of these are really best understood as one contiguous story, and the 'Big Planet' books are totally unrelated to each other and are not really to be considered a series at all. 

For my money, the series can be ranked accordingly (best to worst):

1. Lyonesse. The books were written when Vance was at the absolute zenith of his powers, and you won't find a better introduction to his oeuvre. Humour, irony, cruelty, invention, vindictiveness, strange cultures - the Lyonesse books have it all.

2. Planet of Adventure. It is so hard to choose between this series and the Demon Princes, but this wins out just because I love the setting so much - by far and away the most interesting, beautiful and strange that Vance created. I will be forever disappointed that there is already a Tschai-based RPG book, because I would kill for the license. 

3. The Demon Princes. These are the quintessential Gaean Reach books. The charm and wonder of the setting are smeared across them, and while the first in the series is pretty banal, the last three volumes are some of Vance's greatest standalone works.

4. Alastor. The Alastor books are on average so great that it seems crazy to be ranking them fourth. Wyst in particular is a supreme work of genius (it is right up there with my absolute favourite Vance books). But here we come down to sheer caprice; the Planet of Adventure and Demon Princes series' have an ineffable  quality to them that makes me want to rank them higher - I think it may simply come down to having contiguous narratives linking the volumes together. 

5. Cadwal Chronicles. How can I rank Cadwal fifth? Ecce and Old Earth may be the most enjoyable novel I have ever read - I wish it was 1000 pages long - and Araminta Station is great too. Sadly, the last volume in the series feels like an afterthought or contractual requirement, and lets the series down as a whole.

6. Durdane. It has to be said that while the Durdane books have their moments, as a whole they feel lacklustre when set against Vance's other work. There is something interesting going on in all of them, but the prevailing mood is somehow perfunctory. 


Second, which is Vance's best standalone non-series novel? Again, this won't include the two Cugel books or Ports of Call/Lurulu, which are not really standalone books. For me the top 5, in ascending order, are:

5. The Blue World. The plot resolves itself too rapidly but the worldbuilding is exquisite and the whole exercise both wonderfully inventive and thought-provoking. There are some great set-pieces too.

4. Space Opera. A completely frivolous but deeply enjoyable novel; I normally hate comedic fiction and rarely find it funny, but this is at times belly-laugh inducing.

3. Night Lamp. A late-period novel, dark and cruel, with bleak implications about human nature, but utterly absorbing all the same. 

2. The Magnificent Showboats... Another of Vance's great comedies, unlike anything else he wrote and yet very clearly and obviously his own. A blissful shaggy-dog story with lovably roguish protagonists and a genuinely pleasing resolution. A book to put a smile on one's face. 

1. Emphyrio. I wrote about this fabulous book in depth here; suffice to say that, as I put it in my lengthy review, it is at least the equal in terms of quality of a Viriconium or Book of the New Sun, and vastly shorter to boot. 


Third and finally, just for shits and giggles, let's whittle all of Vance's books (whether standalone or part of a series) down to a final top 10. In ascending order:

10. Ports of Call. A book that had me almost squirming with glee from start to finish. Full of brilliantly funny scenes and dialogue - you can sense Vance smiling to himself throughout. 

9. The Green Pearl. It is hard to pick a favourite from the Lyonesse books, but this is probably the one I liked most - Aillas and Tatzel's adventures are a joy to read. 

8. The Book of Dreams. Howard Alan Treesong is one of the great villains of the SF genre, and the way his character is revealed through his childhood exercise books is a feat of sheer prose skill - an utterly convincing portrayal of narcissism and resentment. 

7. Cugel's Saga. Readers will have gathered that, while I like the Dying Earth books, I don't rave about them - there are better examples of all of their best qualities in Vance's back catalogue. With that said, Cugel's Saga is a real treat, and  'The Inn of Blue Lamps' is probably my all-time favourite Vance scene. 

6. The Palace of Love. This book has mystified and compelled me ever since I first read it, and I cannot shake the sense that there is something truly profound at work in its pages. This is a novel that means something. I can't quite get to the bottom of what. 

5. The Magnificent Showboats... See above.

4. Emphyrio. See above. 

3. The Dirdir. Howard Alan Treesong is a great villain, as mentioned previously, but Aila Woudiver might be even better. In the film adaptation of The Dirdir which I will some day direct, he will be played by a resurrected Philip Seymour Hoffman, and he will no doubt receive a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as a result. Even setting Woudiver aside, I love the central characters in this book and the way in which they grow to love each other over the course of their adventures - all depicted in the most authentic and understated fashion. A beautiful achievement. 

2. Ecce and Old Earth. I said above that Ecce and Old Earth may be the most enjoyable novel I have ever read, and I still have a hard time thinking of a book that has given me more pleasure. What is all the more remarkable is that the first and last acts are quite superfluous; it is the quality of the central portion alone which elevates Ecce above almost all of the rest of Vance's fiction. It's like drinking vintage tawny port after a great pub lunch in front of a roaring fire in winter.

1. Wyst: Alastor 1716. If there was any justice in the world this book would be mentioned in the same breath as A Brave New World or 1984 - a work of great genius and insight that transcends genre boundaries and should be being read in schools. 


You will no doubt disagree with most, if not all, of this. That is, of course, the point!

Tuesday, 13 September 2022

All of Vance's SF/Fantasy Novels - CATEGORISED!

I recently finished reading all of Jack Vance's fantasy and SF novels that I could lay my hands on. Annoyingly, there were a few I couldn't track down - The Five Gold Bands, Vandals of the Void, To Live Forever, and The Languages of Pao. But I TRIED, DIDN'T I? GODDAMIT, AT LEAST I DID THAT.

It serves no real purpose to do this, but nonetheless I thought long and hard about how one might create a taxonomy of Vancian fiction. Vance is sometimes said to have been largely telling the same story over and over again; it would be more accurate to say that his work repeats a relatively small number of central themes. You can therefore readily group his novels by theme thusly (many novels cover more than one theme and are thus placed in more than one taxon):


The Pure Comedies - Vance's books almost always have a streak of wry humour and are wittily written, but he was capable at times of writing for sheer laughs. For what it's worth, these may actually be those of his books I enjoy the most, though they are rarely mentioned as being among his 'best'.

Space Opera

The Magnificent Showboats of the Lower Vissel River, Lune XXIII, Big Planet

Ports of Call

Ecce and Old Earth


The Planetary Romances - Vance is sometimes said to have invented this genre (although it clearly predates him); I suppose you would describe these as novels in which the action mostly revolves around one particular planet, whose cultural and geographical features have an important influence on the plot. 

Big Planet

The Blue World

Maske: Thaery

The Domains of Koryphon

Night Lamp

Slaves of the Klau

All of the Durdane series

All of the Cadwal Chronicles

All of the Planet of Adventure series

All of the Alastor series


The Episodic Novels - these, as the name suggests, are books whose plots are largely (if not entirely) a sequence of discrete events (often taking place on different worlds), loosely connected by an overarching narrative. 

The Eyes of the Overworld

Cugel's Saga

Ports of Call

Lurulu

Space Opera

The Magnificent Showboats of the Lower Vissel River, Lune XXIII, Big Planet

The Green Pearl


The Bildungromane - Vance loved a good coming-of-age story, and many of his novels incorporate elements of this kind of plot. 

Night Lamp

Emphyrio

Ports of Call

Araminta Station

The Anome

Wyst: Alastor 1716

Suldrun's Garden

The entire Demon Princes series can be understood as one long bildungsroman


The Revenge Plots - Revenge is a big feature of Vance's work; these are the novels which have it as their main focus. 

Night Lamp

All of the Demon Princes series

Maske: Thaery

Araminta Station

The Domains of Koryphon

Marune: Alastor 933

Trullion: Alastor 2262


The Stranger in a Strange Land - Vance's most successful plots often feature a clever protagonist adapting to an alien environment and taking advantage of its flaws to make off with wealth, fame and/or a beautiful woman. In some of these books, the 'stranger' is actually a native of the setting in question, but is marked as an outsider (which he, again, deploys to his advantage).

All of the Planet of Adventure series

All of the Demon Princes series

Marune: Alastor 933

Big Planet

Emphyrio

The Durdane series

Night Lamp

Trullion: Alastor 2262

Araminta Station


The Multipart Epics - Vance loved a good multi-volume story; while some of his books have sequels or come in loosely connected sequences (like Alastor, the Cugel books, Big Planet/The Magnificent Showboats..., and Ports of Call/Lurulu), the true epics are:

The Planet of Adventure series

The Cadwal Chronicles series

The Demon Princes series

The Durdane series

Lyonesse


The Philosophical Novels - When the mood struck him, Vance was capable of writing philosophical novels that are at least the equal of a Henry James or Joseph Conrad, and usually much more entertaining to boot.

Emphyrio

The Blue Planet

Wyst: Alastor 1716

The Palace of Love

Ports of Call and Lurulu

I would probably also put The Domains of Koryphon in this category, although it is one of his weaker efforts. 


There are also some less common themes into which one could group certain novels; I am thinking, for example, that 'Woman of Substance' could be its own category (Ecce and Old Earth, The Domains of Koryphon, Night Lamp), as could 'Memory Loss' (Night Lamp and Marune: Alastor 933), and even 'Psychological Consequences of Long-Term Captivity' (The Star King, The Pnume, Araminta Station, and Night Lamp). 

In my next entry, I'll attempt the equally purposeless but enjoyable feat of ranking the books.

Friday, 9 September 2022

On Being a Luddite

I return with a little reluctance to the theme of AI and its possible replacement of human artists and writers.

Let me say, first of all, that I am not completely convinced that AI-generated writing or art has the capacity to really satisfy in the same way that art created by humans does, and that it always seems to lack some sort of je ne sais quoi (okay, let's call a spade a spade - I think it lacks soul). Looking at these images, for instance, I am forced to confess that it is remarkable that an AI simply came up with them starting from a few text prompts. But I still don't like them. They look to my eye like something merely created by a robot aping a human artist, which I suppose, in the end, is what they are.

Let me also say that I'm aware of the argument that goes something like: 'AI won't replace human creators - it will just be a neat tool to supplement human creativity, allowing it to go in new and possibly wonderful directions.'

Let me also say that I'm aware of the argument that goes something like: 'People who are against the development of machine learning technologies are just like blacksmiths being against the development of the car. They are standing athwart human progress and making a lot of fuss about nothing.'

I know about those arguments, and can't really refute them; they may very well be right.

I have, nonetheless, arrived at the position that I would never use AI-generated art or writing in anything I created, and that I think it is important that humanity takes a stand against it. If human beings have anything special about them, anything that separates them from animals, it is the fact that we have innate capacities to create art and to tell stories. Painting a beautiful painting or writing a great novel is not like being a blacksmith; the latter is not really distinct from a beaver building a dam or a chimp using a stick to catch ants, but the former is in a different universe to anything any other species can produce. Undermining that through technological innovation is thus a step not only towards making human creativity obsolete, but towards depriving human beings of what in fact makes us human at all.

That might seem quite a grandiose concern for a part-time creator of niche RPG materials. But since that is what I am, that is where my own personal stand has to take place.

Tuesday, 6 September 2022

On Adventure: Risk as Its Own Reward

 


There is a great deal to be said for thinking of D&D PCs as, essentially, glorified tomb-robbers - adventuring to gather treasure and hence XP. Indeed, if the 'OSR' can be boiled down to any single principle it is probably this one: if you create a dungeon and/or hexmap and populate it with troves of treasure then the game thereafter more or less runs itself. The players have every incentive to explore and the DM basically just watches them go. (Anybody reading this blog will almost certainly consider that observation to be old hat, of course.)

There is a lot less to be said in my view for thinking of D&D PCs as going out and Saving the World, either literally or in microcosm (Saving the Village), primarily because it places too much of a burden on the DM, but also because it ends up depriving the players of agency. With all of that said, these objections are largely a matter of taste, and I don't doubt that many people have fun playing D&D in this way, running this type of campaign. 

These two different ways of playing D&D, which we can very roughly divide into 'old school' and 'new school', result in very different outcomes at the table in my experience, but they do have one thing in common: they postulate largely extrinsic motives for adventure. In the former, the PCs adventure because they want to get gold and hence XP and hence advance in level. In the latter, they adventure because, well, they want to be the heroes of something resembling a high fantasy novel or film; they want to Do Good in the world.

Neither does a very good job of capturing the fact that adventure often has an intrinsic motivation - that it is indeed something worth doing for its own sake, and which therefore is its own reward. (Nobody who has travelled anywhere even slightly off the beaten track can possibly dispute this.) In fact, achieving this kind of mood or vibe may be among the hardest things to do in the RPG hobby; however much D&D's art might channel that kind of feeling, the fact is that at the table very few DMs are capable of doing so and very few players are capable of allowing them to. 

By definition, fiddling with the XP system to incentivise exploration - something I have toyed with in the past - cannot be the answer, because that simply returns us to the world of extrinsic motivations for adventure. The only true method must be precisely by making adventuring in a campaign setting intrinsically appealing - in other words, something worth doing in its own right, irrespective of the extrinsic rewards (such as treasure) that might be available.

Creating such a world is probably the holy grail of anybody toiling over their own precious Fantasy Hearthbreaker setting, though I think only Tolkien's Middle Earth - and maybe Jack Vance's Gaean Reach - comes anywhere close. 

Friday, 2 September 2022

The World of TSRan

What is the World of TSRan?

As the name suggests, the World of TSRan is a campaign setting which takes the predicates of TSR-era D&D and follows through on them seriously. It is a world in which:

  • There are such things in the world as alignments; they are real things that (some) people are aware exist; and there is a cosmic conflict between law, neutrality and chaos taking place in the background at all times
  • The geographic regions are like mirrored refractions of the real world, and contain human cultures which are likewise mirrored refractions of those found in our own world's history, anachronistically jumbled up (pseudo-medieval Europe; pseudo-classical antiquity Mediterranean; pseudo-ancient Babylon; pseudo-medieval Arabia; pseudo-Incas, etc.). 
  • There is a very large variety of monsters in the world, drawing on all the material in the many Monster/Monstrous Manuals produced during the TSR era.
  • There are outer and inner planes which are discoverable and accessible through special means.
  • There are devils and demons who take an active role in events.
  • Elves, dwarves, halflings, orcs, goblins and the like roughly conform to their classical stereotypes.
  • There are psionics as well as magic. 

What does the World of TSRan look like?

The visual cues for the World of TSRan are found in the art of Larry Elmore and Keith Parkinson. These are typical scenes from around the World of TSRan:









What happens in the World of TSRan?

The World of TSRan is one of high adventure. "Adventurers" are a known class of person and the world abounds with them; youngsters grow up with the phrase on their lips - "When I grow up, I want to be an adventurer." It is a world in which battle, theft, assassination, sorcery, summoning, burglary, kidnap and exploration are happening constantly and everywhere; in every forest and on every hill lurk giants, dragons, ogres and worse; every fold in the landscape conceals ruins, towers, tombs and ancient monuments; around every street corner in every town members of the guild of thieves plot against the guard; under the earth lies an Underdark thronged with life. The World of TSRan teems, even in its most desolate wildernesses. 

Where is the World of TSRan?

The World of TSRan lies deep in the memory of every person middle-aged or older who played D&D and read Fighting Fantasy or Dragonlance books in their youth in the 70s, 80s, or 90s, and lies deep in the cultural memory of anybody younger who has ever stood on the merest fringe of that world. It lies on the covers of splatbooks and old issues of Dragon magazine; it can be found wherever the names 'McCaffrey', 'Eddings', 'Goodkind', 'Brooks', 'Weis and Hickman', and 'Dever' are still whispered and understood; it lives on in D&D settings the length and breadth of the world, wherever the word 'Dragonborn' is not mentioned.

How can I get to the World of TSRan?

Reach into your memories if you have them; if not, reach instead into the original iteration of the 2nd edition AD&D rulebooks - those of the dodgy blue and white interior art - which are the purest distillation of TSRanian culture known to the sages. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Chaos and History


To paraphrase Edmund Burke, what separates human beings from flies is that human beings live their lives at the end of a vast chain of culture and tradition that connects them to the very distant past, and which they will pass on to their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on in their turn - and perhaps, if they are lucky, even add to. Flies simply repeat the biological lives of their parents in more or less identical fashion. 

To put it slightly over-simplistically, humans have a history and flies do not. 

It follows that if you can eliminate from human beings a sense of historical continuity and any tie to the past then you can essentially abolish humanity as a distinct category - they will be a mere animal species like any other, living out their lives in meaningless repetition of biological exercises. 

This, it seems to me, is the unstated goal of the forces of Chaos, whether in its Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000, Fighting Fantasy, early D&Dish or Moorcockian guise. Chaos is the pursuit of sheer, unbridled whim - or, alternatively, devotion to the excess of vice. In this, it actively militates against history, culture, and tradition. The goal (or perhaps I should say the byproduct) of Chaos is in other words to achieve Burke's nightmare: a world in which human beings are no different from the 'flies of a summer' except perhaps by virtue of the fact that what they do is a little bit more complicated than mating, buzzing around aimlessly and feeding on shit. 

In case there is any doubt about this, think about Chaos's opposite, which is Law. Law (and here I am riffing on the work of Maurice Hauriou, among others) is inescapably and indelibly historical in the deepest and most profound sense. Most obviously, law is a product of the past; the moment after a law is created it is literally in the past, of course, but more significantly the most basic laws in any society - the prohibition of theft and murder; the enforceability of promises intended to be binding; the remediation of unjust enrichment, etc. - always derive from very ancient rules that are essentially unchanged over thousands of years. And at the same time no law is created without the intention that it should also regulate conduct not just now but into the future, and ideally far into the future - law does not reside in a museum, but continually informs human behaviour like a 'living instrument'. In this sense, law acts to bind the past, present and future of any society which possesses such a concept - the rules which the parents created are binding on the children, and will continue to be binding on their children in turn. It is one of the means by which continuity is assured. 

The existence of law necessarily therefore involves an understanding of history and the continued existence of a culture. Where law exists human beings are absolutely distinct from flies. It therefore follows that Chaos can be understood as the insistence that there should be no law (perhaps I should write 'Law'), and therefore no continuous basis for the regulation of human conduct and the disintegration of the distinction between human and mere biological life. 

So there.

Tuesday, 30 August 2022

Setting Building through the Riding of Strange Mounts

When struggling for ways to freshen up a campaign setting you are devising, you could do worse than start off by asking: 'What weird things do the people in region X ride?'

Here is a table you can use:

D10

Population

Mounts

1

Humans 

Giant frogs or newts

2

Giant snakes

3

Giant gulls

4

Hippos

5

Elves

Giant anteaters

6

Crocodiles

7

Dwarves

Rhinos

8

Ostriches

9

Halflings

Giant tortoises

10

Other (orcs, gnolls, etc.)

Aurochs


This is not just a way of 'weirding things up'. It acts as a spur to the imagination: what kind of a polity, geography and society is home to crocodile-riding dwarves, giant gull-riding elves, or giant newt-riding humans?

In the first case, I immediately imagine a riparian kingdom based in cities burrowed into the huge banks of a gigantic river, with intricate systems of dams and sluices for flooding control, and a complex schedule of taxation for merchants seeking to pass through. In the second, I see a wind-swept and rain-flecked archipelago in subarctic climes, dominated by rivalrous clans of 'gull barons' trapped in a never-ending cycle of internecine squabbling, blood feuds and vendettas. And the third calls to mind tribes of newt-riders inhabiting a great swamp or river delta, living in tree-house villages and waiting for the seasonal (or monthly, or weekly, or whatever) floods to arrive so they can go raiding on their fire-bellied amphibious steeds.

How about giant-anteater riding orcs? Ostrich-riding elves? Rhino-riding halflings? The possibilities are endless (well, 50 or so, anyway). 

Wednesday, 24 August 2022

Closed, Open, and Absent Historicity

A lot of D&D settings have what you might call open historicity. (By 'historicity', I mean simply the quality of having a history.) They are thought, like our own world, to have an origin, and a timeline that begins some time in the distant past and may go on indefinitely into the future. The timeline, note, does not have to be detailed - it simply has to be the case that there is a sense that events in the world follow on from one another in a chain of causation. Faerun, Krynn, Eberron, etc., all tend to be like this, as do most 'fantasy heartbreaker' worlds and those in high fantasy novels (such as Westeros). 

The classic world with closed historicity is Middle Earth. It has an origin and a timeline but also an end. Its historicity is not indefinite - there is a point at which Middle Earth as we know it ceases to exist. There are, I am sure, other example - Narnia? The Hyborian Age? Urth? Viriconium? 

Then there are settings with absent historicity - which present themselves as having existed in the same form essentially forever, and generally without any indication that they have a history as such at all. Alice's Wonderland, Lovecraft's Dreamlands, Neverland, Oz and Fantastica are obvious examples.

It is not necessarily straightforward to deploy this taxonomy. Many settings which one would instinctively put in the 'open' camp turn out to be closed (Lyonesse, for example, or Zothique). And it is easy to fall into the trap of doing violence to a setting like Alice's Wonderland by falsely historicising it, as with the Tim Burton film and its sequels. There are also some interesting edge cases. Is China Mieville's Bas-Lag a setting of open, or absent, historicity? On the one hand, it gives the appearance of having historical depth. But on the other, it seems caught in a holding pattern - fast forward 10,000 years and once suspects that a lot of stuff will have happened, but that the same conditions will essentially prevail. 

Thursday, 18 August 2022

Natural Right and Relativism in Vance, Wolfe and Lewis

This year, I have read an awful lot of books by Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe and CS Lewis. This has caused me to reflect on the nature of morality and how we conceptualise it.

Wolfe, being a Catholic, wrote fiction that was infused with a commitment to the notion of natural right, which here I will use, in the Straussian sense, to refer to the notion that there are objectively good ways for human beings to live, that these derive from an underlying metaphysics, and that there are hence morally better or worse modes of life - both at the individual and societal levels. 

The Book of the New Sun, which I reread this year after having first encountered it probably 20 or more years ago, encapsulates this commitment. Some people think of Severian as an analogy for Christ, but this never passed the sniff test for me first time around, and I was gratified to read somewhere that Wolfe himself also dismissed the idea. Severian is not an analogy for Christ but for a christian, in the same manner as John Bunyan's pilgrim: his tale is one of gradual spiritual and moral growth and redemption. He begins steeped in a morally degraded culture, and over the course of the four books very slowly finds his way - through what can only be attributed to divine grace - not only to the discovery that his culture is morally degraded, but to a position in which he can attempt to change both it and himself for the better. This is basically the christian story, as I understand it at least: humankind's redemption through grace, and its slow discovery of how to be better in light of God's revelation. 

The point, to put it in a more spoilerish way, is that Severian begins as a torturer but comes ultimately to achieve empathy - albeit very imperfectly - and indeed to abolish torture. He slowly discovers, and effects, a better morality. And this happens not from the application of his own reason or intrinsic goodness but through the intervention of grace - at certain moments that I think will be evident to anybody who has read the novels and reflects on them.

(Wolfe's genius of course is that one doesn't have to be a christian to appreciate the books, whose essential premise is: here's a set of incredibly dense and symbolic novels that you could spend a lifetime unpicking, but if that's not your cup of tea, how about all this virtuoso prose, these peerless feats of imagination and a side of horrible monsters?)

Lewis's That Hideous Strength echoes the same themes as The Book of the New Sun in a more explicit way. In one of the more important sequences in the book our antihero, Mark, finds himself being forced to undergo a series of apparently arbitrary and puerile mental exercises designed to achieve absolute objectivity and hence the ability to apply pure reason. The aim of this, of course, is to be in a position to put traditional morality or conceits about natural right before what Oakeshott calls the 'tribunal of the intellect', and cast it all aside when it is inevitably found wanting. The novel's punchline - again, to get a little spoilerish - is that such a state can be attained only through utter relativism and the absolute dissolution of meaning itself: meaning only comes from living in such a way that God intended, and the application of human reason alone to the task of constructing a fresh morality in practice ends in nihilism of the most extreme kind - a war of all against all in which it is just the loudest voices that win. 

This is elucidated for us in Vance's very different approach to the question of metaphysics. In Vance's fiction, particularly the Gaean Reach novels, we find a universe in which there is no concept of natural right, either explicit or implicit - the people in that universe do not believe in it, and nor (apparently) does the author. What exists instead is innumerable cultures whose moral codes and laws rest on mere circumstance; they happen to have developed in the manner in which they have because that is what the history and evolution of those societies has produced in the millennia of their separation from Earth. The endless variety that results is one of the great charms of the Gaean Reach books, and nobody in their right mind would have them any other way, of course, but there is no denying that it is the result of an essentially relativistic understanding of morality. No culture can objectively be said to be "better" or "worse" - they are all simply different (and indeed a persistent theme in Vance's fiction is that they all seem to have malevolence simmering either right at the surface or somewhere deep within). 

This means that Vance is basically a Nietzschean, although I'm not sure he would have described himself in those terms. Since there is no underlying metaphysics upon which morality rests, and it is simply a product of evolution, it can be made subject to human reason, and if an individual human being has sufficient will and vitality he can apply his reason to constructing a moral code of his own. This is indeed what Vance's heroes almost inevitably do, albeit generally unconsciously. The trouble, though, is that the number of individuals who actually do have the will and vitality to achieve this task is very few, and what ends up happening for the mass of human beings is that the moral code which they end up following is simply imposed upon them by those who shout the loudest. When there is no notion of natural right, embodied in a tradition, to draw from, everything is up for grabs in moral terms, and a struggle emerges which is settled only by (literal or metaphorical) force. The result is societies dominated by the moral codes of the victors of such struggles - and laws and customs tending to be harsh, capricious and without any capacity for self-critique. This describes most of Vance's cultures aptly.

Whether Wolfe and Lewis or Vance is correct about how the universe and its underlying morality (or lack of it) is arranged is a question I leave for you to answer.