Thursday 28 February 2019

Campaign Hooks in Spam

I get a lot of spam comments on blogger, as I'm sure everybody does. Some recent ones I've been getting have a real Unknown Armies feel to them and would make great concepts to begin a campaign in that kind of modern horror setting. Here are two examples, shorn of links and email addresses:

I have been casting spells for many years and I have helped many people, I might be able to help you too. I am honest, and I genuinely care for all the clients who choose me to cast a spell for them.

If you have any questions about Love, Money, curse, protection, bad luck, divorce, court cases, or about me please call or email me. I really want you to feel comfortable before moving forward with any spells, or other services. I will take the time to explain things to you and provide you with honest advice, to what is best for your situation. I will not pressure you into having a spell cast, I will leave that decision up to you, and when or if you decide to move forward, I might be able to help you.

I will respect your Privacy. I will not seek to obtain any of your personal information beyond what you might voluntarily offer and all information you might give me including emails, phone numbers and photos will remain private and confidential.

I perform my Rituals only at night between the hours of 0.00 - 0.59 (South African time) lasting 1 hour but of course, this depends on the nature of the ritual, some rituals might take hours and can also become necessary to be performed at specials places like; flowing streams, cemeteries and other places dictated by the gods.

I do not want anyone to be under any illusions about my spells and its numerous rituals. Real and effective Voodoo is no child's play, it is expensive because, after the rituals, I will have to destroy all the materials involved by fire and the ashes scattered over a flowing stream or river. You will get what you seek. But please understand this might take a lot of time and that individual results may vary.

-Dr Ougudu Solution Temple

Are you tired of being human, having talented brain turning to a vampire in a good posture in ten minutes, Do you want to have power and influence over others, To be charming and desirable, To have wealth, health, without delaying in a good human posture and becoming an immortal? If yes, these your chance. It's a world of vampire where life get easier,We have made so many persons vampires and have turned them rich, You will assured long life and prosperity, You shall be made to be very sensitive to mental alertness, Stronger and also very fast, You will not be restricted to walking at night only even at the very middle of broad day light you will be made to walk, This is an opportunity to have the human vampire virus to perform in a good posture. If you are interested contact us on [redacted].

-Lord Mark

Then there's also the inimitable JP Monfort, possibly the most prolific spammer of all time, who I have been meaning to mention in a blogpost for some years. I get emails from this man on a more-or-less daily basis to my work inbox, and this is typical:

JPMONFORTUNITEDKINGDOM THE OFFICE OF JP MONFORT | Building 200 Presidential Teams | [redacted]     Monthly Meetings Begin Q1 2019 at Hotel Savoy in London (United Kingdom) Telephone [redacted] Email [redacted] Website [redacted]

 All Britons Are Welcome, We Will Be Waiting for You 

We have invited you to join the Presidential team in your country. J.P.Monfort is currently setting up 200 presidential teams worldwide, inviting and nominating thousands of top-notch Experts in order to build multidisciplinary teams that will meet once a month and construct creative, imaginative, prospective and analytical policymaking proposals. 

Please remain patient and refer to the following two introductory articles published on The Huffington Post "Why I Embrace Integration " and "Fiction States ". 

For more information read The Monfort Plan summary. Congratulations on the nomination to join your country's most prestigious team, you are one of your country's best Experts and a potential crew member in the World's most revolutionary journey towards the best possible future, a borderless World of Eutopia and Cornucopia. You may now open the World Map of Fiction States . To confirm your Nomination to the Presidential Team send your Resume to confirm (at) jpmonfort (dot) eu. More from our side very soon. Please remain patient. 

Planescape 25th Anniversary Rereading - Part I (Player's Guide to the Planes)

It occurred to me earlier today that Planescape was probably about 25 years old, and, sure enough, I have just checked the publication date - 2019 is the 25th anniversary of its initial release.

While I don't have a clear memory of buying most of the RPG books I had as a youngster, I do remember buying the Planescape boxed set vividly; I got it in a shop in Tel Aviv after badgering my parents for extra pocket money (I must have been 12 or 13 at the time), and spent the next week doing basically nothing but poring over its contents and wearing out some EPs by Therapy? I had on cassette (and what the fuck happened to them, I wonder?). I would say that I can't hear the song "Screamager" without thinking of Planescape, but the truth is I don't think I have actually heard the song "Screamager" since about 1995, so I'm not sure if that statement would actually be true.

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to do a kind of Planescape retrospective on this illustrious occasion - reading the original materials and, possibly, some of the other books from my collection (I have most of the official releases) depending how it goes. And if you're all good children and sit nicely and listen, I might share with you the special Easter Egg I found at the bottom of my Planescape boxed set which I just opened for the first time in God knows how many years.

Where we'll begin is where I began all those years ago: with the "Player's Guide to the Planes" - the bit of the boxed set which players are supposed to read before beginning a campaign: as such, it's the definitive beginning statement on what Planescape is and why it is going to be worth getting to know.

A few things are immediately apparent the instant you turn the contents page and start to read the text proper:

1) The bar set by the production values on the original Planescape boxed set has still not been raised since. The unique typeface for headings and subheadings, the layout, the colour palette, the art and what the kids nowadays call "information design" are not only of the highest quality, but also hang together with a strange sort of cogency; I'm not sure why it is that Diterlizzi's pseudo-Victoriana pictures fit so nicely alongside the vaguely medieval-looking typeface and why the marble-effect background theme doesn't clash with either of those things, but the whole thing undoubtedly works, and works well. It is stunning what people who know what they are doing visually and are lavished (comparatively speaking) with money can achieve.

2) The slang/cant has not aged well. I think when I was 13 I appreciated it a lot more: opening the "Player's Guide to the Planes" and being told on the very first page "Welcome, addle-cove!" probably struck me as "edgy" and was undoubtedly completely different to every other RPG book I'd read. (I can't remember if I'd encountered Cyberpunk 2020 yet, though; it's possible.) And I still get what they were trying to do - to cast Sigil as being a kind of interplanar Mos Eisley/Victorian London with very rough edges, like a literal port to the planes, with the attitude that port cities have everywhere. But, let's face it, as a 37 year old man I now find the whole berk/basher/cutter thing more than a little cringeworthy - a deliberate attempt to appeal to an audience of teenagers being tempted away from D&D by the more "adult" (read: teenage) language and themes in White Wolf books and other rivals. "This is not your father's D&D" is the message, but from the vantage point of 25 years it feels more than a little forced.

3) The setting to my jaded eye now does not seem quite as innovative as it once did - if anything it very much undersells all the things that make it interesting. This a theme that I will undoubtedly come back to as this series of posts goes on. But with that said, it's worth pausing for a moment to put yourself in my shoes in 1994, when as a young teenager my only encounters with the fantasy genre at all had been Tolkien, Fighting Fantasy!, Warhammer, the Lone Wolf game books and novels, and, I suppose, a few comics. I was blown away by the scale and ambition and sheer differentness of what was being done with Planescape. I've now read the Viriconium books, The Book of the New Sun, Mieville, Borges, Calvino, Le Guin, and so on; I hadn't then. And still, despite the fact that the designers never quite followed through on the promise shown in those first few pages of the "Player's Guide to the Planes" (again, a theme I'll come back to), it still does show promise. There is something balls-to-the-wall about starting off a mainstream D&D product line by describing life in a city which hovers on top of an infinitely tall mountain on the inside of a giant loop which is lying on its side:

Compare that with all the mainstream D&D settings since - not to mention Pathfinder.

4) The "Player's Guide" seems to suggest a schema of travel between the planes that was quietly dropped afterwards: if you want to go from the Prime Material Plane to the Inner Planes you have to go through the Ethereal Plane; if you want to go from the Prime Material to the Outer Planes you use the Astral Plane; and if you want to travel between the Outer Planes you have to go via the Outlands or Sigil using doors and gates, or you have to physically actually go from one Plane to another by traversing the Planes in between. Perhaps I am misremembering, but I am pretty sure that later Planescape products were predicated on there being portals between Planes, so you could go from e.g. Arborea to Mechanus directly through one.

5) Tieflings. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see why tieflings became so popular - what could be more appealing to a teenager in the 1990s than to be somebody who was part demon? - but as I recall, at the time my friends and I didn't particularly find that new PC race appealing, and it's interesting how little time and space the "Player's Guide" devotes to them. They are almost in there as a throwaway, with the really interesting introductions being the bariaurs and githzerai as PC races. They're easily skipped over. And, in fact, it's an odd choice - perhaps the only really bum note in terms of art and design - not to have explicit illustrations of any of the PC races in the book.

6) But that's easily offset by the factions. Question: How do you make the notion that the planes are literally formed by philosophical belief something that the average adolescent D&D player can understand and get his teeth into? Answer: Give them philosophical "factions" to choose from and get Tony Diterlizzi to do character sketches for each one like so:

7) Once again, the spectre of White Wolf seems to haunt Planescape, here, though: was the creation of the factions an effort to ape the by-then phenomenally popular White Wolf motif of having PCs belonging to one of a dozen or so tribes, clans or other groupings to help define their character and beliefs?

Monday 25 February 2019

Revisiting 40k: Four Explanations for Turning to Chaos - Or, Milton, Orwell, Burke and Lenny Murphy Walk Into a Bar...

Why would an ordinary human in either the Warhammer Old World or the 40k Imperium turn to worshiping chaos? "Because they want power" is not a good answer; most of those who do it end up the lowliest mooks, dead in fairly short order or horrendously mutated and abused. I can think of four explanatory theories, which I describe as the Miltonian, Orwellian, Burkean and Murphyist accordingly.

Miltonian: Because, ultimately, you feel that you have been unjustly treated and your feelings of frustration boil over into open rebellion. This makes sense as an explanation for the actions of Horus and his comrades (which, let's face it, is a cheap knockoff of the Paradise Lost story anyway) and, perhaps, for chaos space marines. You feel betrayed because you are not accorded the accolades you know you deserve, and you become capable of monstrosity as a result.

Orwellian. In Orwell's famous 1940 review of Mein Kampf, he said:

[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation ‘Greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is a good slogan, but at this moment ‘Better an end with horror than a horror without end’ is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.”

(Try to imagine a journalist saying anything remotely as thoughtful or important today.)

Need one say more than this? The Imperium offers (apparently) a quasi-feudal social structure in which many people can expect only at best a life of drudgery in return for physical security. Worship of the chaos gods offers "struggle, danger and death", and so some people - perhaps the populations of entire planets - embrace it for that reason alone.

Burkean. There is a kind of implicit social commentary running through Games Workshop games - although it is a very Anglo-Saxon one. It says, roughly, that class structure exists and is grossly unfair and has all sorts of other negative consequences, but overthrowing it is worse. You have a choice between the present feudal order and, both literally and metaphorically, chaos.

But it would hardly be surprising if some people didn't turn to chaos in that context, just as some people turned to Jacobinism and untrammeled blood-letting during the French Revolution or violent anti-clericalism during the Spanish Civil War. If the current system is shit, radicalism begins to appear sensible, and in the Imperium, radicalism = chaos, QED.

Murphyist. Occasionally in life there pops up a special brand of psychopath who, through personal charisma, is able to convince people around him to not only commit heinous acts but to enjoy it - to embrace darkness. The classic example for me is Lenny Murphy, leader of the "Shankill Butchers", a band of loyalist paramilitaries who cooperated to torture and murder at least 23 Catholics in and around the Shankill Road area in Belfast - ostensibly as acts of "terrorism" but more likely simply to satisfy Lenny Murphy's psychotic and sadistic impulses. Other examples would include Charles Manson, and John Bunting for Australian readers (Snowtown ranks up there with the most disturbing "Never watch again" films I have ever seen, but it is a really effective study in this phenomenon). What would it take for people to turn to the worship of Khorne? Answer: perhaps not all that much if they've not got much going on in their lives and a very compelling lunatic persuades them it would be a good idea. It's all downhill from there.

Don't worship any chaos gods, kids.

Friday 22 February 2019

British Regional Accents: A Guide for American DMs

So, I sat down and tried to watch the first episode of the first Critical Role campaign. I gave up a few minutes in. I had half an idea to write a series of blog posts critiquing it, but, on reflection, what would be the point? I'm not the target audience, and if some people enjoy it, good for them. (I write this through teeth that are slightly less gritted than they would once have been; I've mellowed over the years.) 

But the post did get me thinking about the topic of British regional accents and American cultural products, particularly in Fantasy & SF, mainly because the first PC to get introduced in that Critical Role campaign is described by an actor straight from the Dick Van Dyke School of Linguistics, and it got me thinking about how Americans make use of such a limited palette of British accents when going for some sort of specific effect. 

The general rule for Americans when it comes to British accents seems to be: British people are either very posh or cockneys, and if they're not, they're either the Beatles or Scottish. The Welsh and Northern Irish certainly don't exist, and nor does any English person outside a kind of mythical idealised London roughly between the years 1850-1945, or Liverpool between the years 1962-1970.

This is reflected in the way British regional accents are used in American Fantasy & SF: villains speak in RP, unless they are mook and/or comedy villains, in which case they're cockneys; dwarves are Scottish, and now and again somebody from Somerset appears, usually to represent a yokel (viz: Sam in the The Lord of the Rings films). 

This won't do. You guys need to expand your range a little bit. 

The best way to do this is by watching videos of interviews with football fans on YouTube - an unintentionally hilarious genre of programming which never fails to combine vitriolic anger, self-entitled outrage, politically incorrect asides, and logical incoherence - all presented in the funny voices of grown men who should really know better. 

Here are some examples. First, Estuary English. How about the guy on the right for a hobgoblin?

Second, how about this Mancunian kobold?

Third, a couple of Liverpudlian gnolls complaining about modern football.

Fourth, some slightly downtrodden Geordie orcs dissecting the result of a recent battle.

Fifth, check out this Boro fan (that's Middlesborough) - a goblin for definite (although he is right about Leeds).

Sixth, a clan of Brummie bullywugs? 

And finally - Welsh wererat?

GMing Advice: Everyone Gets a Chance

I don't tend to post much GMing advice here on the blog, mainly because I don't tend to read it myself when others post about it; I suppose I just don't find the topic all that interesting and think that a lot of good GMing is learned through practice alone.

That said, last night I happened to go back to some old reddit posts and came across this one from the old "Ask Me Anything!" thread I did on /rpg when Yoon-Suin was Game of the Month.

In it, somebody asked me for "general Dungeon Master tips" and I said the following:

Hmm. In all honesty I increasingly think that the best DMing advice is to give everybody a shot at the limelight. Make sure you roughly devote the same amount of time to everybody's goals/desires/activities/in-character conversations, and if somebody seems to be left out, ask them "What's your character doing?" or something like that to involve them. It really helps when everybody at the table feels like they are "in the game".

I had completely forgotten typing that, and was surprised that I had actually said something which, looking back, I agreed with. That is good DMing advice.

I would now nuance it slightly to make clear that "having a shot at the limelight" does not mean a chance to "be awesome" or to show off. It just means having a chance to actually be the centre of everybody else's attention for a minute. Even if it's just switching the focus to somebody by asking them "What does your PC think about this?", it works wonders. Suddenly somebody who was a passive observer is part of things (even if they are just offering a view).

Judging when to do it, and balancing attention between the players, is something that has to be learned. But the principle derived from practice is sound. Perhaps I was wrong after all here.

Wednesday 20 February 2019

Whisky and D&D 6th Edition

I like whisky.

The whisky industry is in an interesting moment: more whisky is being sold around the world than ever before, and while this has caused certain problems, it has also had some benefits. One of these is the explosion in fairly small, craft distilleries who produce premium products at affordable prices. Where previously they would have struggled to find a market for their single malts and would have ended up supplying their stuff purely for blended whisky, they can now sell boutiquish, high quality single malts very easily online throughout the world.

Good examples, if you are interested, are Glencadam and Tomintoul (these two have the same owners), Springbank, Benromach, Edradour, and Kilchoman.

What these "craft" whiskies tend to have in common is a commitment to naturalness. Your average mass market single malt whisky will tend to have caramel colouring added to it to maintain consistency when on display on supermarket shelves (and also to make them look older). This makes whiskies look much darker than they really are, like a fake tan. They will tend to have the minimum level of alcohol necessary to be classified as whisky (40% ABV). And they will typically also be chill-filtered, meaning they have gone through a process of being chilled to below freezing and then passed through a filter to remove residue and make them look clearer than whisky naturally is. (Whisky should be cloudy when cool.)

Whisky enthusiasts despise all this. Caramel colouring alters the flavour. Lower alcohol results in a milder taste experience. And chill-filtration makes for a thinner taste and also a thinner "mouthfeel" - it just doesn't feel good on the tongue. So "craft" distilleries, catering as they do to whisky enthusiasts, make a big point of putting on the labeling: NATURAL COLOUR - NON-CHILL-FILTERED - 46% ABV (or whatever).

Once you have tasted whisky that has been presented in this way (particularly once you have tasted whisky that has not been chill-filtered) you really find it hard to go back.

What's interesting about this for non-whisky drinkers is the effect it has had on the industry. Because "craft" whisky has started to find a market, the big players have begun to experiment to try to take advantage. It's almost as though the craft distilleries have staked out a new market segment, and the big boys are now trying to fill it. Glenlivet, for a long time the biggest-selling single malt distillery in the world, now has a revamped "Nadurra" range which is non-chill-filtered and marketed as being "natural" and "old fashioned". Cutty Sark, one of the big blended whiskies, now has a "Prohibition Edition" which is 50% ABV and non-chill-filtered (and fucking delicious, by the way). It's not that the big industry players are panicked or running scared - they just sense an opportunity to make more money.

A very similar thing happened with the OSR and D&D 5th edition, I think. It's not that WotC were panicking that all their loyal customers were flocking to download Labyrinth Lord. (Although 4th edition didn't do well by all accounts.) It's that they noticed there was a way to make more money by playing up the "craft" aspects of what was going on in the OSR blogs and their influence on 5e. Most buyers wouldn't notice, but the crazy hardcore nerds would, and would like it. You keep your main customer base but also widen your appeal to some of the more opinionated and passionate gamers. It seems to have worked.

The question I suppose is what happens next. Will there be a 6th edition in the near future? Almost certainly not. But I expect if there is one it will take even more influences from OSR playstyles - more emphasis on sandbox play, more emphasis on random tables, and more emphasis on DMing as rulings over rules. I could be wrong; we'll see.

Tuesday 19 February 2019

Children's Books and the Reading Experience

I am not a publisher of children's books, but with a toddler around I sure do buy a lot of them. From the outside, it looks like a brutally competitive market: the major players pump out thousands upon thousands of titles in the hope that one or two will catch on and become million-sellers, and because parents buy a lot of books and are generally discerning about what they give their kids, there is a huge race to the top in terms of quality. Children's books (the ones outside of the bargain-basement box anyway) are really nice. The colours are beautiful. The text gorgeously typeset. The art is stunningly good. The books themselves just feel lovely to hold and page through and look at. It is a fantastic reading experience.

(Children themselves don't give a fuck about this - it is totally lost on them. My daughter prefers looking at mail-order catalogues.)

People publishing RPGs, particularly self-publishing them, will find it next to impossible to match the production values of your average children's title, but there are a few things that I think could be replicated.

The first of these is the use of smaller formats. A4 (or "letter size" as you Americans charmingly call it) is horrible to read. There are plenty of kids' books that employ it, but they do so unwisely. It is too big to focus the eye and annoying to hold and a hassle to page through. You really notice this more when the person you are reading a book with has small hands, but once noticed, you realise it's crap for adult hands too.

The second is giving space for the text to breathe. Many children's books have a single sentence on a page, aligned in the centre. Nobody would advocate that for an RPG rule book. But it is a very nice and uncluttered way to present information. Imagine an RPG book with this sort of design, with text (more text, of course) nicely arranged on one side and art on the other, all the way through:

The third (but then I would say this) is the use of landscape format - small landscape format. Big landscape format just makes things more unwieldy. But small landscape format works very nicely: something about having the pages spread out across your lap makes the information much more easily digestible than squashed into a trade-paperback or even A5 portrait format. See for instance:

And the fourth is the use of cardstock. I have increasingly wondered whether there might be space for more rules-lite, or fluff-lite, RPG books to be presented on cardstock rather than paper. Perhaps it is only due to nostalgia, but the experience of holding and turning cardstock pages really is rather nice indeed - you really want to know what is on the other side. Something in the weight of the pages, and their relative scarcity, makes turning them an event. It works. And it's also robust to continual use at the table.

Monday 18 February 2019

I Don't Know What to Think

I have been very hesitant to post this entry, partly because I have not entirely made my mind up what I think, partly because I don't really see much value in fanning flames further than they are being fanned already, but also partly because I expect it will make some people angry. But I've decided to go ahead and do it anyway for a few reasons. First, I feel a strange sense of ownership over this issue for reasons we'll come to. Second, I expect there is a silent majority out there who will feel like I feel but are scared in the current climate to say it and/or are drowned out by the noise from a very vociferous minority. Third, I think our public discourse is being ruined by braying hordes of people who are obnoxiously sure that their own opinions are right and that to hold opposing views is not just wrong but evil. The only way to fight that is to actually fight it, and I can do my very small bit here on my blog. And fourth, while I am worried that putting this post up is going to alienate people and possibly very severely impact on the blog and my involvement in making RPG stuff, it is more important in the final analysis for me not to feel as though I am a moral coward, and being silent about this matter would be in my view moral cowardice on my part.

First, let's set the scene. I would call myself an online acquaintance of Zak. He played in a PBEM Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign I ran a long time ago, I want to say in 2008-2009ish, and when he started his blog, James Malizewski and I were those he asked to let people know he had one, which is what gives me that odd sense of ownership I referred to earlier. Over the years we have occasionally commented on each other's blogs or G+ posts but not in a particularly regular way (I would say once a month on average if even that), and we played in a couple of online hangouts sessions together a long time ago (maybe 5 total?) but not since I think about 2011 at the latest. We did from time to time discuss working on something together in a very vague way, but nothing ever came from it. And I have to be absolutely honest and also say that, you know what? Zak did a lot to promote Yoon-Suin and in a sense I owe him for that - irrespective of what he has or hasn't done or what kind of person he is.

Since roughly 2013 or 2014, though, I made a deliberate decision that I would not get into debates with him online, because let's face it, he was an argumentative bastard and it was never worth getting involved in a debate with him, and also that I wouldn't pay much attention to all the online controversy surrounding him or "the OSR" in general, mainly because online controversy in general annoys me but especially in the context of discussing elf games. And it always amazed me when I saw other people complaining about him being a bully or being manipulative - I still can't quite understand why others can't do what I did and just take him with a pinch of salt and get on with their own business, but then again I was never really in the bubble, so to speak, and I tend to strictly separate my real life, which I care about, from the online world, which I do not take at all as seriously.

Second, and on that note, I don't really think of myself as part of any sort of "community" when it comes to OSR games; if there is a flock, then I am not exactly a black sheep, but some disinterested ram in the next field who occasionally bleats contributions but is mostly interested in what's going on in the hedges and pastures on the far side of his own enclosure. I am not wedded to this issue like others evidently are, and so I will freely accept that I am not as emotionally involved as I might be if I knew the parties personally.

So, with all that said, I have something to say about the Zak S controversy (and please make sure you actually read it all):

I genuinely don't know what I actually think about it. My work involves the law, and I understand what it means to say that the criminal standard of proof has to be "beyond all reasonable doubt" (although nowadays for dumbing-down reasons in English courts juries tend to be instructed that they have to be "sure"). We don't just have that principle merely by historical accident or because otherwise there would be miscarriages of justice (though there would be of course). We have it because if people are presumed guilty before it is proved, criminal justice moves outside the legal system altogether and the public begins to execute its own forms of sentencing without any concern for the trial process, and that is where madness lies. It's not that a criminal justice system based on the notion that you are "innocent until proven guilty" is perfect. There are plenty of problems with it. It's that the alternative is much worse: people then end up being convicted through public opinion alone, and then there's no reason for the public not to carry out its own very harsh and arbitrary forms of punishment and circumvent the justice system altogether. You can't actually have a functioning civilized criminal justice system which is not based on this principle. And it is critical that the public understands it and are committed to it.

And if you are of the view that this should be the case, there can't be half measures. The principle only works at all if it works for the most odious people and for all criminal accusations. So, I'm sorry, but I don't agree that "believing accusers" is the right way forward to solve the problem which I entirely accept exists and is awful: it's hard to secure successful convictions against sex offenders and lots of them get away with it. There has to be a better solution to the problem than that one and I am all in favour of finding it.

That's my general view, and it would lead to the conclusion that I am not, to use that crucial word, "sure". I am convinced from my own experience that Zak could be a complete prick to other people and, having seen recent posts from others, I am also convinced that he was manipulative and used his influence for malign ends at times. But as I said, having a history of being nasty isn't a smoking gun for having committed a given criminal offence or offence(s). The criminal standard of proof is the same whatever type of person you are. I don't really know Mandy Morbid from Eve - she was in those hangout games I played in with Zak but that was 8 or 9 years ago and was the only context in which I ever knew her. I have never exchanged two words with her outside of the context of those hangout games. She made some allegations which seem plausible but not enough to make me "sure". The matter is not beyond all reasonable doubt, for me, and I'm worried that so many people seem to think it is. I think that has more to do with the Zak's often-obnoxious online persona and the nature of the accusations rather than actual "sureness" in the technical sense.

But on the other hand, I have known Patrick Stuart for a long time and he is one of very few people who are involved in this online hobby who is actually a friend - as in, a person who I hang out with face-to-face and know properly and trust. And he, being much more knowledgeable about the key players than I am, thinks Mandy's account is credible, and paints a compelling picture of Zak which I take on face value because I take Patrick's word seriously. In that sense, then, I am "sure". I believe the account on a gut level because of that.

In other words: I am not not sure, and yet I am sure; I'm conflicted. And, perhaps because I'm conflicted, I don't want to live in a world in which people aren't allowed to feel conflicted and own up to it. I don't want to live in a world in which people are scared that if they are not sufficiently convinced that the prevailing opinion of the crowd is right, they will be mobbed and exiled for confessing it. I want to live in a world in which it is perfectly acceptable for people to say what they actually think and feel, if it comes from a position of good faith, and they are not then bullied or ostracised for doing so. And I think that, insofar as a "community" exists, the only communities worth being in are those in which people can express their views freely and get a fair hearing when they do. So I have gone ahead and said what I actually think and feel, from a position of good faith: I don't know what I think.

To which I will of course add: this is not a post in defence of Zak, and certainly not a post in defence of abuse of women. Nor is it a post criticising anyone for saying they can't comfortably interact with Zak anymore or buy any of his products - I am also probably in that camp on balance. It's a post in defence of being honest and open, and being non-judgmental about others' opinions and beliefs and reactions to what they read and hear. And that is all.

[Comments are open but I will not be replying to them.]

Friday 15 February 2019

Just Do It

I went through a phase, as a wee sprog, of wanting to be a writer, and so I read a lot of books on the topic of "How to Write". I stopped, though, and don't read those sorts of books any more, for the simple reason that they are a waste of time. There is no magic bullet for learning how to write well - you just have to practice at it, really hard, every day, and read as much as you can - and any of the other "advice" in those books is dreadful. Don't use adverbs! (Except all great writers do, just in the right amount.) Read the Chicago Manual of Style! (Except that, while good grammar is necessary, all the best writers know when and how to break the rules.) Show, don't tell! (Except when "telling" works, which it sometimes does.) Write about what you know! (Except if you're trying to write anything except autobiography.)

It's useless stuff served up to desperate dreamers convinced they just need to know how to make it. The only such book worth reading is Stephen King's On Writing, because although he does serve up some of those chestnuts, he mostly just describes his own process and emphasises that - yes - you just need to read and write (and rewrite) a lot. By doing so, you learn - in a totally atheoretical, experiential sort of a way - how to use adverbs judiciously, how to break the rules of grammar where necessary, and all of that jazz; it comes with experience.

(There is also a very short section of Ben Bova's How to Write Science Fiction That Sells that has always stuck with me, and which I think I have mentioned on the blog before: "If you want to be a writer, write. A writer writes.")

Likewise, I have also at various times attempted to learn how to draw, through buying books that promise me they'll help me do it. At best, they are just collections of activities to spur you to practice, and which would have no particular violence done to them by being summarised as: "Take a pencil and pad wherever you go and draw stuff when you can, at least once a day."

And that's not to mention songwriting; I am not a songwriter and do not aspire to be, but I am interested in songwriting and, again, the people you need to listen to are those like Glen Ballard, who once said in an interview that he's probably written over 10,000 songs in his life. Or Nile Rodgers, who says "I'm not a good writer, just a good re-writer." Or Gary Barlow, who in his early days used to go home after performing a concert and play more music. Or Paul McCartney, who will still be up writing songs at 1 in the morning.

You just have to do it.

This is a hard message to take onboard, because it forces you to confront the fact that you probably really have no excuses other than laziness and lack of moral fibre. All those hours of your life you've spent watching TV, mindlessly scrolling your Facebook news feed, or lying in bed reading a crappy paperback? You could have spent half of that time, a third of that time even, getting good at a craft of some kind. You didn't. You only have yourself to blame.

Thursday 14 February 2019

There's No Substitute for Good GMing

I used to work at a startup. The founder of the company was very much into applying what he had learned doing an MBA, and one of his big interests was translating tacit knowledge and know-how into formal rules, processes, "playbooks" and so on. Because I was deemed to be "good at what I do", I was his test case, and we spent many a long afternoon sitting down trying to transform my know-how into a series of documents that others within the company could use to improve. That experience, I can see now in retrospect, sparked a long-standing skepticism of mine towards all such attempts to formalise the knowledge and skills that professionals develop through practice. Let me put it another way: if you're good at a profession or craft, most of what makes you good is learned unconsciously and practiced without deliberate thought. And the exercise of trying to extract all of that and transform it into a set of procedures, guidelines, processes and so in is not only largely doomed to failure but actually can very frequently be detrimental to the practitioner himself - it certainly made me second-guess myself a lot more than I had done when I was just blissfully being good at my job.

(This is why most books on "How to Write/Draw/Write Songs" and so on completely suck, by the way, with the only useful information ever imparted being "practice a lot" - something which one day I will write a blog post about in itself.)

Nothing new here if you've read your Polanyi or Oakeshott or for that matter ever watched a genuine craftsman (using the term broadly to include teachers, doctors, engineers and so on) do anything. But an important observation for me at that time.

It applies very strongly to GMing. You can learn to be a good GM. And there are certain rules of thumb which will help. But by and large you get good at it from experience, and the know-how of a good GM tends to be tacit and untheorized. Good GMs don't think about what makes a good GM and put that into practice. They just do it. What skills they learn they learn "on the job" - and, it's worth adding, from social interactions as they go through life, GMing being a social activity.

It is important, of course, not to confuse the necessary and the causal. It is necessary to wear a suit to a job interview, but that won't cause you to get the job. Likewise, it's necessary to study medicine if you are going to be a doctor, but that won't make you a good one. You need to know some rules if you are going to be a GM, but they won't make you good at it.

And it's important, too, not to discount the je ne sais quois of talent; some people do have natural gifts (and natural disadvantages). But I very much believe that good GMing comes from just going ahead and doing it - frequently - and letting your brain's natural propensity for trial and error and unconscious learning to get into gear.

Tuesday 12 February 2019

State of the Yoonion

So, let's have some updates on some long-running projects that I have not talked about for a while.

  • Behind Gently Smiling Jaws is finally progressing well after about an interminable amount of thinking over how best to present the idea. I have a lot of good stuff in note form, stuff that I am pleased with and which I think (I hope) owes almost nothing to any pre-existing work of fantasy literature except at a very conceptual level - certainly not the the tropes which dominate the OSR. All relevant posts are tagged, but many are now out of date.
  • The Valleys of the Winter People, my samurai-in-Ainu-faerieland setting, is in a sense completed in draft form, but I am not very happy with it at all and think it needs extensive reworking. I am not sure when it will see the light of day. 
  • Another idea I have been playing with but which I don't think I have blogged about yet is called The Meeting of the Waters and is roughly based on an area of the world I do a lot of hiking; it is a kind of "Northumberland Yoon-Suin" (by which I mean, lots of random tables, but to create a setting which is loosely inspired by North East England, with gorse-bush people, pheasant people, an aristocracy of storm giants, and stuff like that).
  • I am also fiddling around with Orbis Immobilis: The Fixed World which I have quite a few posts about: it's my homage to the AD&D 2nd edition Monstrous Manual which uses all its obscurest monsters and tries to present a kind of deep Gygaxian-naturalist ecology for them all.
  • I, er, am also writing a Yoon-Suin novel which is currently about 30,000 words in length and going strong; announcing it here might jinx it, but we'll see. 

As is always the case I am keen to collaborate with interested illustrators and artists, but I am picky, very bad at responding to emails, and do not really play well with others. With those caveats in mind, contact me if you like. 

On the Ends of Eras and Decline

There is a genuine fin de siecle feel to the OSR/DIY D&D/whatever-else-you-want-to-call it movement these days. G+ is dying. From what I gather, alternatives to it are Not The Same. If you are reading this you will also I am sure be aware of certain controversies surrounding important figures that confirm that sense of general malaise.

Human cultural movements (at least within capitalism) tend to follow a pattern: a sudden flowering of amateur creativity followed by monetization, then corruption and decline, then a long tail of continuing but diminished resonance thereafter. I know no better illustration of this than grunge, as told in the absolutely seminal Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge, by the journalist Mark Yarm. A group of bands start out creating a scene through the pure love of making music. Some of them through luck and hard work make it big. Suddenly the outside world is interested and then there's lots of money to be made and the soul is ripped out of what once was. The creative flowering ends up becoming a kind of thin pastiche of itself, and then a parody. Finally most of the big bands break up, people marry and move on, or kill themselves directly or indirectly, and there's not a great deal left. Pretty soon all that remains is Eddie Vedder going through the motions of singing "Alive" for the 20,000th time and Third Eye Blind. And the kids are all listening to Offspring and britpop.

The "OSR" (I call it that for want of a better term) is not on the same magnitude but it has followed that pattern. A sudden explosion of blogging and forum activity born of genuine passion. Gradual monetization and pseudo-professionalisation. Oversaturation and too much stuff to buy, too many people selling product. Then slow deflation. (D&D arguably also followed this pattern.)

What's important to remember about this, though, is that there can be a long tail. D&D didn't go away after its peak in the early-mid 80s. It went into remission and is now enjoying refound popularity - and perhaps a slightly more mature and less frothy version of that. "Grunge" doesn't exactly exist as a pop-cultural phenomenon anymore but the music still exerts an influence and many of the personalities involved have gone on to have much longer post-grunge careers (Dave Grohl being the obvious example). It might be that the "OSR" will also go into a period of diminution and perhaps even hibernation. But it also might mature as a result: fewer "fevered egos", fewer supplements, less selling and a back-to-basics return to the blogosphere.

That has been my hope and in this corner of the internet it's going nicely. I don't miss G+, and quitting it has actually made me realise that for a long time I've missed just blogging and interacting with the commenters here. Readership and commenting is much higher than it has been for a long time. In a funny sort of a way, decadence and decline is working nicely for me. And I don't just mean that in an "I'm alright, Jack", sort of way; I think it will be good for the "scene", too, because it might mean a renourishing of roots which have been allowed to wither of late.

Monday 11 February 2019

Revisiting 40k: War(hammer) Is a Continuation of Politics by Other Means

Clausewitz said "War is a continuation of politics by other means", or words to that effect. But he also said "war is nothing but a duel on a larger scale". Resolving this thesis-antithesis is what cleverer people than I am say is the purpose of his On War. Another way of putting it might be that war is a continuation of politics in the abstract, but when it comes down to the concrete matter of how it is fought, it turns into a plain wrestling match.

Tabletop wargames, naturally, very much focus on the latter aspect of this - one would expect nothing less from a game, after all - and Games Workshop games do this most of all. Warhammer and Warhammer 40k not only focus on Clausewitz's "duelling" aspect of war like all wargames do; the political element is reduced to the most brutish and rudimentary consideration of all - total destruction. Whether it's the Chaos Gods trying to corrupt all humanity or an ork warband waking up one Tuesday morning and deciding to go on a rampage or an Eldar Craftworld deciding to wipe the human vermin off the face of a star system, the reasons why 40k factions go to war are basically always the desire to exterminate (or defend oneself from extermination), as though every single conflict that ever takes place is a more extreme variant of Operation Barbarossa. 

This lends things a sense of drama, clearly, because every single battle is couched in a wider context of two sides attempting to literally annihilate each other. It also makes in a sense for what Ron Edwards would probably have called "coherent" play: Warhammer battles are always always fights to the death, with one side achieving total victory and the other utter destruction. They are also always battles of attrition in the technical sense - fought to kill enemy soldiers and nothing else. There might be terrain, and there might even be notional "objectives" on the terrain which give victory points for winning, but the interest of the players is in destroying one's opponent's troops.

The odd thing about this is that the size of Warhammer engagements - often with fewer than a hundred models on the table - is so resolutely undramatic. Barely even a skirmish in the grand scheme of things - something akin to two forces conducting recon-in-force, I guess (which makes it even odder that they frequently include generals, mighty champions, famed heroes, etc.). In this sense at least 40k in particular is incoherent - it would be more fitting if battles were fought not between a few score troops on either side but between forces of hundreds of thousands, bigger even than epic scale.

What I would like to see is a strategic version of Warhammer 40k - a Birthright for the 41st millennium (or better yet a Crusader Kings II for the 41st millennium) which made the whole thing properly reflect the genuine "grimdarkness" of a setting in which the political objective of war is, basically, genocide and ruin. I would pay money for a game which did that.

Saturday 9 February 2019

New Island Now Home to Dragons and Duergar

A short post for a Friday, when nobody seems to read or comment on blogs anyway. I was very taken with this this BBC News story about a new island that has formed in Tonga, called Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai; apparently it's only 4 years old but has already been populated by various flora and fauna.

If you can't make this into a D&D campaign (or, Call of Cthulu campaign, let's face it) there is something wrong with you.

Friday 8 February 2019

Here, Piggy Piggy Piggy

The pig-faced man-eating orc is so much nastier than the green-skinned kind, and what's more, he's more real with it:

"A 56-year-old woman has been eaten by pigs after collapsing in their pen, Russian media report. After venturing out to feed the animals in a village in the central Russian region of Udmurtia, the farmer reportedly fainted or suffered an epileptic seizure. Her husband later found the body. She reportedly died of blood loss. Their farm is in a village in the Malopurginsky district of Udmurtia, east of the city of Kazan. Local media say the husband had gone to bed early the day before as he was feeling unwell. After waking to find his wife missing, he came upon her body in the pen."(

"Authorities are investigating how a farmer in the US state of Oregon was devoured by his pigs. Terry Vance Garner, 69, went to feed his animals last Wednesday on his farm by the coast, but never returned. His dentures and pieces of his body were found by a family member in the pig enclosure, but the rest of his remains had been consumed." (

"A pig attacked and seriously injured a man less than two hours after the same animal attacked his wife at their Massachusetts farm. [...] Police and emergency responders were called to the farm Tuesday evening for a report of an injured woman. When they arrived, they found a 38-year-old woman with severe lacerations on her body from an apparent pig attack. She was taken to a hospital for further treatment. Less than two hours later, rescuers were called to the same location for a report of a man who had received more serious injuries from the same animal soon after returning from the hospital where he'd gone with his injured wife. [...] The pig's teeth severed a major artery in his arm and he almost bled to death, says CBS Boston." (

"The reported ferocity of wild pigs (Sus scrofa) is legendary (Blansford 1891, Ricciuti 1976, Wilson 2005). Being capable of tenaciously defending themselves against natural predators and conspecifics, this aggressive behavior among wild pigs has also been documented to include attacks on humans under a variety of situations (e.g., including both hunting and non-hunting circumstances). Images of such attacks were depicted on prehistoric cave paintings (e.g., at Bhimbetaka, India) as early as 50,000 years BP (Kamat 1997). These incidents were described in writings produced in both the ancient Greek and Roman empires (Ricciuti 1976). Fatal wild pig attacks on humans were recorded on headstones in the Severn Temple graveyard in England dating back to the 12th century (Severn Temple 2004). In the Western Hemisphere, accounts of such incidents date back to 1506, when introduced feral pigs were reported to have often attacked Spanish soldiers hunting rebellious Indians or escaped slaves on islands in the Caribbean, especially when these animals were cornered (Towne and Wentworth 1950)." (From JJ Mayer, "Wild Pig Attacks on Humans", Wildlife Damage Management Conferences - Proceedings 151 (2013), Introduction - available here:

"A boar left on the pasture, at liberty with the sows, might suffice for thirty or forty of them; but as he is commonly shut up, and allowed access at stated times only, so that the young ones may be born at nearly the same time, it is usual to allow him to serve from six to ten—on no account should he serve more. The best plan is, to shut up the boar and sow in a sty together; for, when turned in among several females, he is apt to ride them so often that he exhausts himself without effect. The breeding boar should be fed well and kept in high condition, but not fat. Full grown boars being often savage and difficult to tame, and prone to attack men and animals, should be deprived of their tusks." (R. Jennings, Sheep, Swine and Poultry (1864), para. 264.)

"The rigid avoidance of this failing of bad temper in a boar is advisable not only because this quality is almost invariably hereditary, but a savage boar is a continual source of danger to man and beast." (S. Spencer, The Pig: Breeding, Rearing and Marketing (1919) p. 58)

"Shining with sweat, I began running uphill in wellingtons - a feat usually beyond me - and decided to cut through the pig paddock to get to the fields leading to the lane. As I scrambled down the mental gate into the bare earth of the pigs' enclosure I saw, out of the corner of my eye, Freda's clothes entangled with a row of pink pigs, lying like sausages in the packet.

"I can tell you what the end of the world looks like. In a circle around you everything dissolves and melts so that you know that life is an illusion, a pretty screen over the eternal expanding chaos of the universe. For one terrifying second I thought that the pigs had eaten Freda." (J. Lewis-Stempel, Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field (2015), p. 152)

"'Always remember this about pigs, Jahn,' [my grandfather] says, and suddenly jabs one pig in the ear with a spade. There is a grunt from the recesses of time, from the primordial swamp, as the pig bites at the shovel. Poppop retracts the shovel, bends down and points at the blade, swivelling it slightly so it catches the morning light. The pig has left gashing teeth marks in the steel. My grandfather is a man of few words but actions speak louder. Any animal that can leave bite marks in steel can bite off a human limb." (Also J. Lewis-Stempel, Meadowland, p. 153.)

Thursday 7 February 2019

Strong Female Characters

"Woke" capitalism is essentially all about moving into untapped market segments while retaining the old core audience as much as possible, and film producers, book publishers, video gamers and the like are at the forefront of this: I'm not sure what genius it was who realised that you could appeal to a  certain female audience by having strong kick-ass female characters, while keeping the male audience too through the sex appeal of said characters - possibly whoever came up with Tomb Raider? - but it appears to work.

It's your classic bootleggers-and-baptists coalition - the term coined by public choice theorists to explain the strange alliances which tend to get things done in liberal democracies. Bootleggers and baptists both loved prohibition, for entirely different reasons, and together they were a powerful force behind laws restricting the selling of alcohol. The combination of high- and low-minded interests is often a winner, and it has done a number on SF and fantasy; some people care about diversity, some people have spotted bucketloads of cash going unclaimed - either way, there sure are a lot of Strong Female Characters around these days.

Not that I have a problem with Strong Female Characters. But I do have problems with certain elements of the phenomenon.

The first is just my objectionable, contrarian, bloody-minded nature: I hate being preached at, and sometimes there is an element of preachiness in an author or film-maker electing to have a Strong Female Character in a certain role - a certain sense of somebody waggling his or her finger at the audience and saying "Now, don't you be a naughty sexist and think there's anything wrong with a woman being in this role, and by the way, didn't you know women could also be engineers/soldiers/rugby players/mighty wizards/whatever?" When I sense this motive I instinctively recoil, like a slug being sprinkled with salt. Nothing makes me want to be a sexist more than a thinly-veiled lecture on the evils of sexism masquerading as a character.

The second is more serious: I understand that nowadays you're not allowed to say this in some circles, but I'm one of those befuddled lunatics who thinks he has observed that men and women tend to differ in certain important respects (on average, always with exceptions) and that being a Strong Female Character probably ought not to just mean a Strong Male Character But With Breasts. I have known, liked, loved plenty of strong women in my life, and I've never thought of them as strong because they are just like men. I know some great women karateka and judoka who could break your arm as soon as look at you. I know some women who have risen to the pinnacles of their professions. I know some women who can lift heavier weights than I can. That's not what makes them strong, because (here's a life spoiler alert!) that's not what makes anybody strong. Strength of character is what counts. And male strength of character tends to be different than female strength of character. When I see a Strong Female Character in a book or on screen, I want to see a character who makes sense to me as a woman in view of that.

To me the paradigm example of somebody writing a Strong Female Character well is this scene from Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs (which is the last good book he wrote, by the way). Clarice has been sent to look at the corpse of a brutally-mutilated female murder victim in a rural mortuary. She arrives to find that the place is crowded with men - local police officers - who have been joking around with each other. She's intimidated but it's also implied she's affronted by the lack of dignity in what she sees. Here's Harris:

"Starling took off her scarf and tied it over her hair like a mountain midwife. She took a pair of surgical gloves out of her kit. When she opened her mouth for the first time in Potter, her voice had more than its normal twang and the force of it brought Crawford to the door to listen. 'Gentlemen. Gentlemen! You officers and gentlemen! Listen here a minute. Please. Now let me take care of her.' She held her hands before their faces as she pulled on the gloves. 'There's things we need to do for her. You brought her this far, and I know her folks would thank you if they could. Now please go on out and let me take care of her.'"

They suddenly become quiet and respectful and file out to leave her with the corpse, and she makes significant discoveries as a result. Apart from its understatedness, what impresses me about this scene is that Harris doesn't adopt the line a lesser writer would have taken, the preachy line, the line of "Well Clarice Starling is a tough cop and so she butts heads with the men and shows them she's in charge." He takes the realistic line: "Clarice Starling is a tough cop and she knows how to empathise with people and how to say the right thing, the thing which will get through to them and get them to do the right thing." He gets that men relate to women differently than they do to other men, and vice versa. It's kind of immaterial that this might be socially constructed, as the inevitable response will be. The point is, whether it's socially constructed or not, it is how people actually are.

(Thomas Harris is a weird case study in the fame of writers. There is a chasm between The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. One one side, there is a powerful craftsman at the height of his powers. On the other, there is a madman who has had a rush of blood to the head because so much critical praise has been heaped on him that he's lost all connection with reality.)

Such characters are, regrettably, thin on the ground in SF and Fantasy. It is a cliche to point to Ripley in the Alien films but it's a cliche for a reason: Ripley is the classic example of a female lead who you couldn't replace with a man just as easily. Yes, she can fight, yes, she is technically accomplished, but the themes of maternity, compassion and empathy are what gives those films emotional depth. A male character in that role just wouldn't bring half as much to the party as Ripley does.

Another one is Princess Leia, who participates in the action just as effectively as the men, but who also provides an emotional core to the Star Wars 'gang', bringing some sensitivity and nuance into what without her would be a somewhat by-the-numbers boys'-own adventure story. (Think of the scene between her and Luke in Return of the Jedi when he tells her they're brother and sister - Carrie Fisher's acting is underrated; given a chance to show she had a range she was perfectly good at reciprocating.) It's not that the men get to have all the fun and derring-do and she's at home to patch up the bruises and cook them dinner. She's perfectly well involved. But she adds depth that another male character wouldn't.

Finally, I really like the Cordelia character in Lois McMaster Bujold's early books - somebody hard-headed, practical, who gets to deal with genuine ethical dilemmas (how often do Strong Female Characters get to do that in Hollywood films?) but who also leavens the violence, hatred and militarism in the male characters in the book with forgiveness and empathy. (I really ought to re-read those - it's been a good long while.)

I close in hoping this post doesn't engender (pun intended) a debate about "political correctness gone mad", "feminazis" or "mansplaining" - take the post in good faith and give some good examples of Strong Female Characters of your own.

Monday 4 February 2019

Lord, enlighten thou our enemies

One of the great things about reading books - whether non-fiction or fiction - is that you get to see alternative viewpoints to your own. The exercise forces you to see the world through somebody else's eyes (really, a lot other peoples' eyes - primarily the authors but also the characters). I am sure that as a result of this people who read more tend on average to be more nuanced in their thinking than those who don't. 

This makes reading very important, especially in times like this when everybody in the Western world seems to be at each other's throats and existing in social media bubbles spreading lies and distortion and carrying out a neverending 2 minute hate directed at political opponents.

Back in the late 40s - when genuine ideological differences had only recently just torn the world asunder - Lionel Trilling* called on liberals to regret that contemporary conservatism had become "bankrupt of ideas", because liberalism would become "stale, habitual and inert" without intelligent opponents putting it under pressure. He cited JS Mill's paean to Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "'Lord, enlighten thou our enemies...'; sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers. We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength." What he meant by this, of course, was that one's own wisdom only grows when forcibly examined by vigorous opponents and supplemented by their own insights. 

For Trilling, the only solution, since conservatism had become in his era so weak, was for "a criticism which has at heart the interests of liberalism [performing] its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time." It was only then that liberalism could refresh and renew itself and remain pertinent. This was the job of fiction, as Trilling saw it, "because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity and difficulty." 

What Trilling had to say was wise and important and works for anybody of any political persuasion. You don't get to be a better liberal/conservative/socialist/environmentalist/whatever by reading people you agree with. You get to be a better one by putting your ideas appropriately to the test and reconciling them to other forms of wisdom. While it may seem eccentric, to say the least, to argue as Trilling did in this superficial and image-obsessed age that literature can actually save humanity, I think he was probably on to something.

Put in terms more relevant to readers of this blog in particular, it's worth tracking down the best authors whose views you are sure you don't share. For me, that's probably Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula Le Guin, Ken MacLeod, M. John Harrison... although it is almost certainly much easier to do for people roughly to the right-of-centre because so much SF/Fantasy literature (and literature in general) is written by left-leaning authors. If it strengthens your convictions then, fine, and if it weakens or modifies them, they were probably wrong to begin with; if all it does is make you feel a little humbler about what's right and what's wrong, then the exercise will be more than worthwhile.

*In the Preface to The Liberal Imagination (1950).

Sunday 3 February 2019

Really Very Much Faster Than Light

I am currently reading Jo Walton's What Makes This Book So Great?, a collection of her blog posts on all about re-reading great SF and fantasy books. It was a pure impulse purchase - I had never read anything of hers before; apparently she's a Hugo and Nebula Award winner - and I can't say it's a great book. Its main virtue is that it is essentially a big list of things which you should be reading instead - classics of the field and some overlooked gems - and hence a way to populate your already way-too-long "to read" pile.

She does have the occasional interesting insight. this post, for instance, on FTL travel. Why is it, she reasonably asks, that FTL ships in SF books and films tend to all travel at roughly the same notional speed, i.e. taking about as long to get from one place to another as it does for a sailing ship to get from one place to another on Earth? Of course, SF spaceships do not move at realistic speeds - they move at the speed of plot. So why is it that "the speed of plot" tends to end up being about the same speed as seaborne travel?

(There are exceptions to this, of course: in JJ Abrams' awful Star Trek reboots, the "speed of plot" means "the speed at which JJ Abrams comes up with a shit new idea".)

She cites Nova by Sam Delaney as an interesting example in which notional FTL speed is much quicker - "the whole inhabited galaxy is about as far apart emotionally as New York and San Francisco". You can get from the Pleiades to Earth in three days, for instance. I haven't read Nova. But the idea of FTL travel which is actually really very much faster than light intrigues me.

It makes me think of a game I used to own for my Commodore Amiga in the early 90s. I don't remember even what it was called; somebody reading this may recognise it. Essentially it was a space-ship combat game, sort of in the vein of the X-Wing and Tie Fighter dogfight games from roughly the same era, but it had the (to me) fascinating conceit that it was billions of years in the future and the universe had begun to collapse in on itself, so that it was only a dozen or so light years across, so that everything, all the galaxies, planets, stars, etc., were all now crammed really close together. As a result, all of the many thousands of civilizations there were in the universe were now next door neighbours and literally having to fight for space.

Clearly this setting had no basis in science (I guess if the universe had already collapsed to that size it would disappear to nothing in, like, a picosecond or something?) but come on - "Why is everybody fighting each other?" "Because the universe literally isn't big enough for all of them" is a great concept for a space war game. Also wonderfully bleak, because even victory is pointless: you're all going to disappear pretty soon anyway, making vanquishing enemies the ultimate in sheer bloody-mindedness.

If FTL travel was really really fast and even something as vast as our galaxy could be crossed in just a couple of days or weeks, what would be the consequences? It would be a little bit like that game. The many alien civilizations within the galaxy would all be able to reach any part of it more or less instantly. This would mean: a) non-starfaring races would probably be contacted by starfaring races all the time; b) distance would be no real obstacle to the pursuit of warfare - Empire Zigzang from Alpha Centauri could just as well pursue a war against Earth, a relatively close neighbour, as it could pursue one against I dunno, the Kingdom of Blark from, well, some really far away star; c) the same would also be true of trade and communications, right?; and d) travel in general would not be limited by time or distance but really only by fuel, which would probably mean that fuel would be an extremely hard-fought-over resource.

Indeed, you could probably make a really interesting SF setting in which FTL travel was super-duper fast, allowing you to cross the galaxy in a week, but you need a very rare and special fuel in order to do it. So interstellar (even intergalactic) travel would be quick, but infrequent. Thinking through the implications of that could occupy an inquiring mind for some time.

Saturday 2 February 2019

My Recommendations

A commenter challenged me, entirely fairly, to make some of my own book recommendations to my readers. I often struggle when asked to do this, but fortunately for the last five years or so I have been carefully recording and reviewing every book I read on Goodreads. So, here are all the books I have read during that time which I have deemed worth of being 5 stars, in the completely random order Goodreads put them in when I ranked my reviews by rating:

The Game by Neil Strauss. I don't care what you think of PUAs as a cultural phenomenon; it is without doubt a subject worthy of anthropological study and this book is just a phenomenal piece of gonzo journalism on it - maybe the best piece of gonzo journalism ever written by anybody not Hunter S. Thompson.

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings. I love Hastings' books and this doesn't disappoint. It takes a while to get going, but when it does it rollicks along. Just brilliant popular history about an important subject, which also does a decent job of looking at the war through the eyes of the Vietnamese (and doesn't shy away from indicting the Viet Cong as much as the Americans, which I feel is important).

Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge by Mark Yarm. It probably helps if you like the music, but even if you don't I'd say that the story of grunge - underground movement to pop sensation to debauchery and decline - is well worth reading about as a kind of paradigm case reflecting the life story of essentially every cultural movement that there has been since the renaissance. Also Eddie Vedder comes out of the book smelling like the worst of all possible turds.

Jennings Goes to School by Anthony Buckeridge. I re-read this as a sort of guilty pleasure remembered from my youth. If you like children's books set in impossibly-hyper-idealised boarding schools for upper-middle-class nitwits in mid-20th century England, you will love it. Think Harry Potter with no magic (or female characters whatsoever).

American Tabloid by James Ellroy. Love Ellroy, had not got round to reading this one. This is what I said in my Goodreads review: "I found this book almost absurdly entertaining. The pages brim with manic violence, sex, and foul language. The characters are all etched larger than life. The writing is hard, fast, dirty but strangely poetic. The plot is like a labyrinth but you are whisked around it in a blur. Simply a great read."

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. An account of the exploration of Antarctica by a member of Scott's expedition. The journey of the title is not the one which led to Scott's death (although that is in the book), but rather an absurdly demanding trip through the Antarctic winter to try to capture an emperor penguin's egg to bring back to England. Cherry-Garrard basically never recovered from what happened to him in Antarctica and after reading the book you can see why. This is probably in the top three books on this list, one which I would give 6 stars to if I could.

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. Oh God, The Neverending Story. If you've never read it, do it now. Stop reading this blog entry and go and get it out of your nearest library and read it, and report back once you've finished. This one I would give 7 stars to if I could.

The Soldier of the Mist and The Soldier of Arete by Gene Wolfe. Somebody recommended this series to me on the blog, and I'm very glad they did. What can you say about it, except that it's a story about a mercenary from the Italian peninsular who cannot make new memories and is somehow in contact with the world of the gods, journeying around Ancient Greece in the aftermath of the failed Persian invasion? And Gene Wolfe wrote it. There is a third volume about his adventures in Egypt which I also read and like, but gave 4 stars to.

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien. On the face of it a book about the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the long shadow of war crimes would not usually be my cup of tea, but after my Dad died I took it upon myself to try to read through his library (a work in progress) and this is one of the standouts. Lyrical and powerful and lingered long in the memory.

The Goshawk by TH White. TH White is one of the greatest of all English prose writers and this book is about him trying to tame and train a goshawk. It made me cry, and books never do that. This is another one of my top three on the list, I think.

My Dark Places by James Ellroy. James Ellroy gives a non-fictional account of his early life and tries to track down his mother's killer (she was murdered when he was a youngish boy) while also discussing crime and, in particular, crimes men perpetrate against women. Calling it "James Ellroy does feminism" would be pushing it, but it's an absolutely shocking book for a man to read. (I say that as a man who is resolutely not "woke" and will do my damnedest never to be wakened.)

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. I read others in the series and also ranked them highly, but the first one, the one I gave 5 stars to, is the best. Like all really great fantasy books it is also about something deeper than just a fancy setting and magic; this one is about the relationship between father and son and it manages to say very important things about that kind of relationship in the context of an entertaining fairy-tale sort of plot. Like Narnia for grownups.

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan 1944-45 by Matt Hastings. Another Hastings tome, another wonderful example of popular history. The chapter on the firebombing of Japanese cities should be read by everybody.

Chin Ping Mei, Or, The Adventurous History of the Mandarin and His Six Wives. And now for something completely different - how about a 500-year old Chinese novel about, well, a minor bureaucrat and his six wives? I didn't give this 5 stars just because it's a classic and felt like I ought to. It is an absolute page-turner, very funny, and gives startling insights into a way of life completely different to our own.

City of the Chasch by Jack Vance. I love me a bit of Jack Vance, and this is very much a bit of Jack Vance - not much more than 100 pages. Somebody recommended this one to me on the blog, too; some day I will get around to reading the rest of the series.

Japan and the Shackles of the Past by R. Taggart Murphy. A history of modern Japan, from a refreshingly opinionated and critical author. A great way to understand the actual country, not the one you see on TV, films, or in anime.

Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel. Just great nature writing - a beautiful series of meditations written over the course of a year by a farmer about his land and the creatures (domesticated and wild) living in it.

The Path to Power by Robert Caro. The first of five (four of them published) volumes of Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson - each of which is, not incidentally, about 1000 pages long. I have not read the others yet, but plan to as soon as possible. To say it puts other biographies to shame is to engage in gross understatement. It is a titanic work. It is also one of the greatest books I think I have ever read - a political biography which reveals not just the subject but also the nature of politics and is in its own right a stunning literary achievement and beautiful, poetic history of the period and milieu in which Johnson lived. I can't recommend it highly enough (even for somebody who knows little or nothing about LBJ; before picking up this book my knowledge of him extended to, "Er, was he the one who became President after JFK got shot?").

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. I am not a great one for "funny" books - I tend not to find them terribly funny. (My own personal readership hell is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.) This one actually is funny, and made me laugh on almost every page despite myself. The bus-ride scene towards the end may be one of my favourites in English literature. It is fabulous.

Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten 20th Century by Tony Judt. It is always worth reading anything by Judt, even though he represents the kind of elitist liberal normativism I intensely dislike, and this is a superlative collection of essays on very recent history - the history that textbooks have not yet been written about. His skewering of Tony Blair is delicious.

The Iliad (prose translation by Martin Hammond). What is there to say about The Iliad? Probably nothing that hasn't already been said. If you've not read it, nor had I until I got this, and I loved it. I can't speak for other translations.

The Fifth Head of Cerburus by Gene Wolfe. Foreshadows the entire "new weird" movement, I think - you'll never be able to read any of those authors again without thinking them a pale imitation of Wolfe. There is a fan theory out there that these stories are the future of the same planet that The Book of the New Sun is set in, which then makes you wonder if it is perhaps our very, very distant future, since some people think New Sun is far-future Earth. Whatever. It's a classic.

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the History of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist. I can't summarise this book in a way that would remotely do it justice - look it up, and then get a copy and read it. This is the third of my top 3 books on this list. I was spellbound from start to finish, and more than any other book I think I've read, it actually changed how I look at the world. Don't read it unless you're prepared for the same thing to happen to you.

The Histories (Herodotus, translated by Robin Waterfield). I loved this up-to-date, readable translation of Herodotus, which turns them into the wonderfully eccentric shaggy-dog story they really are.

Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg. Another one from my Dad's library that I never would have ordinarily read. A trio of deadbeats try to solve a murder which may not actually have happened. That's the plot. It doesn't begin to describe how well it's written and how brilliantly it keeps you guessing until the very end. If you love a good mystery, get this.

The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age by Gertrude Himmelfarb. None of you will read this. Don't pretend you will. It deserves 5 stars, though.

Dark Companions by Ramsay Campbell. I think I must have read this 7 years ago, which makes me wonder whether my statement of having joined Goodreads 5 years ago was accurate. Anyway, a really chilling and warped selection of Campbell's non-Lovecraftian horror fiction. These are mostly "plain" ghost stories, but of the bleakest, harshest and scariest kind.

An odd selection, looking at them all listed. Not much SF/Fantasy fiction at all in there, which says a lot about both me and the genre, I suspect.

[PS: I should add that I didn't include re-reads of The Lord of the Rings on the basis that...well...why are you reading this blog if you need me to recommend you try The Lord of the Rings?]

Friday 1 February 2019

Why Can't I Find Amanda Hugginkiss?

"Maybe your standards are too high!" That's what, with some reluctance, I have had to tell myself. I am too picky when it comes to SF/Fantasy novels - so picky that I can no longer find any I want to read.

Let's change that. I have asked for recommendations before, but here I will do so again. Recommend me a book and sell it to me. I may even review some of the recommendations made here on the blog, something which I have kept meaning to do for some time. I won't limit what recommendations I might receive by stipulating any restrictions.

[Also: I have bought a new computer, my first foray into Mac ownership. I like it, but for some reason when I post comments on the blog with my Google account via Safari they just don't appear. I have no idea why this is. I will reply to yesterday's comments on my work PC; if anyone knows of a solution to this issue, please let me know what it is.]