Thursday 7 November 2013

Three Other Realms from the Rules Cyclopedia

From the Rules Cyclopedia, page 176:

Elementals live in towns and cities on their own worlds. Both the worlds and the building materials are made entirely of pure elemental material, in solid, liquid, or gaseous form. In the universe of its own plane, each elemental race occupies thousands of worlds. The elemental races are far older than humankind, and more civilized in many ways. They have art forms for six senses. 

Entire universes comprised of one element. A never-ending mass of earth stretching in all directions - not just to all compass points, but up and down. A riddle of burrows created by denizens of the plane - a kind of infinite cave network inhabited by races of elemental being which those of us on the prime material plane do not even suspect to exist. Entire kingdoms carved from solid rock.

From page 177:

The faerie inhabit the air and clouds. Faeries are close relatives of the demihumans, with features of each race: They appear as halfling-sized humanoids with gossamer wings, dwarvish noses and beards, and elvish ears and eyes. Faeries' bodies are light and they fly with little effort. They build their homes of "clouds," and enjoy basking in the sun while storms rage below. They have their own great empire of the wind far above the earth, commonly known only to themselves and a few air creatures.

Like Gene Wolfe's 'Skai', the realm above Mythgarthr, inhabited by overcyns to which mankind owes fealty. A world that exists in the sky and yet also somehow above it, impossible to get to except for blessed individuals or those selected for some special mission - and those who try to reach it are doomed to fall, Icarus-like, into the sea while a boat sails calmly on.

From page 184:

Headsmen (also called "executioners") are NPC humans commonly employed by dominion rulers. They are trained in the business of killing criminals who have received the death penalty. Most headsmen are skilled in the proper use of bladed weapons, ropes, and poisons and are able to execute criminals quickly and neatly.  
All professional headsmen belong to their own guild, which is associated with the Thieves' Guild. Headsmen keep their true identities completely secret, wearing hoods or disguises when engaged in professional activities. Many own ordinary shops, and can seem to be perfectly ordinary townsfolk. Headsmen of 6 HD or more are 90% undetectable in their disguises, and study languages of all sorts to improve their masquerades. Headsmen of 10 HD or more can even use the secret languages of other alignments.  
Thugs: A secret organization exists within the Guild of Headsmen. These evil headsmen enjoy their work too much, and offer their services for open hire. Others call them Assassins or Thugs; they call themselves Pragmati ("the practical people").  
Unlike the Thieves' Guild, the Pragmati are not supported by adventurers or rulers. They are sometimes hired by other NPCs, especially evil ones. However, PCs do not normally contact these headsmen for any reason; their organization is dangerous as either an enemy or an ally. Thugs are treacherous and self-serving, known to extort money from their previous "clients" with threats of exposure, kidnapping, or even murder.

An entire secret realm existing behind and within human society: the Practical People. With its own rulers, its own codes of behaviour, its own rituals, religions and mores. Like the unseelie court - the dark conscience of the natural order of things. A conspiracy of hate and alienation which commits criminal acts at random, leaving those in 'real' society mystified. Yet sometimes, when a cart has just crushed the leg of an unfortunate child, or a hitherto placid horse has bitten the face of its groom, or a building has burned with everyone in it, somebody nearby recognises somebody they know - and yet doesn't Ned have green eyes, rather than blue?

Tuesday 5 November 2013

People are Complex

If you had asked me 12 months ago what I knew about Orson Scott Card, I would probably have answered, "Isn't he that guy who wrote Ender's Game?" That was about the extent of my knowledge. It turns out that he's a devout Mormon and has, as some devout Mormons do, views about homosexuality that the mainstream might not share. This has apparently led to boycotts of the release of the new Ender's Game film in the States.

I don't intend to get into a rant about that issue in particular. Suffice to say that I don't agree with Orson Scott Card, but I disagree equally strongly with associating the political views of a writer or artist with their work - the work should stand on its own merits, and in Ender's Game it more than does. It is one of the most humane and brave novels for teenagers (who are nowadays called "Young Adults" for some reason) ever written. HP Lovecraft was a daft-as-a-brush racist, Wagner was a despicable anti-semite, L. Frank Baum thought that the native Americans ought to be wiped off the face of the earth...none of that should matter if their work is good and those views aren't in the work. I tend to think that boycotting the new Ender's Game film is rather dangerous, in that it subsumes art into a discussion about social values, and thus diminishes it.

Rather, what interests me about this issue is that, wherever you read discussion of the film on the internet, everybody feels bound to dismiss Orson Scott Card as nutty, insane, hateful, bigoted, appalling, and so forth. Even the sensible reviewers, who look at the film as a film, feel the need to preface their comments by saying "Of course, Orson Scott Card is a blithering idiot and a horrendous bigot to boot, but...." or words to that effect.

I think that's too easy. Of course I should preface these comments by saying that I don't agree with Orson Scott Card about homosexuality or gay marriage. Nonetheless, the only real encounter I have ever had with the man is this interview, in which he comes across as an overly-chatty but very nice, extremely warm-spirited and generous man with many interesting things to say about writing, about fantasy and SF, and about creativity. Which is to say, setting his views on homosexuality aside - if this interview was all you had to go on - he would appear as, generally speaking, a good egg.

People are complex, but we seem unduly keen to reduce them to what we hate about them. It's very easy, and tempting, to follow the equation that Card = homophobic = bad person. I think that's inherently dehumanising. For me, the far more interesting issue is: How can somebody who is broadly 'good' have views that are most certainly 'bad'? How can somebody write a book as empathetic as Ender's Game while apparently not having much empathy when it comes gay people who want to get married? Mr Card may be able to explain that, in fact.

It's something that you will inevitably encounter if you look into the political or social views, or the 'off screen' persona, of any creative person you admire. I think China Mieville is a brilliant writer and a really interesting and charming bloke in person too, but his political views in the abstract would probably make my hair stand on end. (Not that I'm comparing his views with those of Card - you understand my point.) Richard Dawkins is an astonishingly good science writer whose books communicate a love of knowledge and expression of wonder at the majesty of life, yet he's capable of sounding like a po-faced and mean-spirited bigot when the mood takes him, which is often. John Lennon wrote some beautiful songs, showing incredible insight into human emotions and how to express them, but he was capable of treating people in his personal life with appalling cruelty. You will be able to think of your own examples.

Part of being a person alive in the world is that you have to recognise that people often can't be pigeon-holed. Sometimes people hold views that you disagree with very strongly, and that doesn't necessarily make them a bad person. Sometimes people do 'bad' things while expressing beauty and empathy through their art. Trying to arrange the world in such a way that it's easy to divide the people you agree with and disagree with into separate camps labelled "hateful bigots" and "on the side of the angels" is extremely tempting, but foolish and mistaken. It's about expressing control over something - other people - that can't be controlled.

Friday 1 November 2013

In Defence of the Mimic

On Autumnwatch earlier they did a 'bit' on a creature called the Long-Nosed Beetle, which eats snails. It does this by grabbing the snail and carrying it off, before jabbing its mandibles into the fleshy bit at the opening to the shell and secreting a special enzyme which dissolves the snail's body and turns it into mush. The snail responds by trying to squirt it with mucus, which it blows into bubbles in an attempt to spook the beetle and persuade it to leave it be. Two species of animal which have obviously been engaged in an evolutionary arms race for millions of years. 

It reminded me of another wildlife documentary I saw a year or so ago which was about limpets and starfish. Starfish love to eat limpets - but limpets are able to defend themselves by raising their shells up and down slightly to squeeze the starfish's skin against the rock they are attached to, almost like a somebody stamping on your foot repeatedly as you try to approach them. Often, this is enough to annoy the starfish enough that it goes elsewhere and leaves the limpet in peace.

It would never occur to me that limpets, which seem like such simple animals, would have developed this defence method for dealing with starfish, but of course they have - they've been evolving in parallel with starfish as their chief predators for millions of years. 

As humans we tend not to get predated on by other animals, but imagine if there were human-hunting beasties out there, as there must be in a typical D&D world; wouldn't it be the case that such predators would have developed highly specialised ways of killing humans, and wouldn't we have developed highly specialised responses?

Perhaps it is a species blind-spot, but it is quite hard to imagine what such a predator would be like. If it had been engaged with us in an evolutionary arms race for millions of years, it would probably be extremely resilient against weapons, extremely good at hiding (because we are good at organising ourselves into large groups), and also possibly very good at playing on our weaknesses - it might be able to perfectly mimic the sound of a child in distress, say. Maybe it would hunt us by tempting us away where we might be alone, and then hitting us with overwhelming force because of our pathetic physical weakness in comparison to most animals.

Or maybe it would be very like a mimic. Animals grow to resemble all kinds of things - leaves and sticks, most notably (although there are mantids and spiders which can perfectly disguise themselves as flowers to trick bees and other nectar-gatherers) - in order to escape detection. Why shouldn't mimics do the same to fool us? 

I suppose the standard argument against the evolution of mimics would be: humans are rational, so unless a mimic was near-perfect in its ability to mimic it wouldn't really fool us. And so it couldn't really evolve - how would nondescript monster x incrementally evolve into something that could disguise itself as a door or chest or chair, if all of the intermediate stages wouldn't fool anybody?

The response might be that the mimic could evolve in exactly the same way the mammal eye evolved. Having a tiny bit of an eye that does nothing but tell you the direction in which light is coming is better than no eye at all. If there is one blobby ancestral species without even a rudimentary eye, and then one day a mutation provides a member of that species with a little nub of an eye that allows it to detect light, then its genes will proliferate because that will give it a big advantage over the others. So imagine a miscellaneous blobby human-hunting creature without any special ability to mimic anything humans would recognise: if one day one of these blobby things was born with a mutation which meant that, in a very dim light, at a certain angle, at a certain time of day, it looked sort of like a chest to a very short-sighted human, then that would be an advantage over the rest of the blobby things. That singular mutant blobby thing would have a slight edge on the others of its species and be more likely to breed. Its genes would gradually proliferate. And natural selection would take the mutation and run with it. Within a hundred generations, you might have a whole species of blob things who are really pretty decent at looking like chests.

This is the most rambling entry I think I've ever written: I'm tired and I've been drinking hoegaarden all night. I don't have the will to make it coherent. But you get my drift.