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."(https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-47161035)

"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." (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-19796224)

"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." (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/pig-attacks-husband-and-wife-on-their-massachusetts-farm/)

"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: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1150&context=icwdm_wdmconfproc)

"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 Tor.com 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.]