Friday 31 December 2021

Find Somebody Itching for Something to Start: A Soft Announcement

In the New Year, I'm planning to launch a new print 'zine via Noisms Games, featuring original art, gaming content, and (yes) fiction, with an emphasis on the beautiful, the heroic, and the fantastical. I'm thinking of calling it In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard.

The basic idea is to pay money up front for content and then use a Kickstarter to cover costs of printing and, hopefully, recoup other expenses. I will not contribute much myself; I would like to make the 'zine open for submissions, and selectively publish high quality stuff. I will think the venture a resounding success if I only end up publishing a small percentage of what is submitted. 

This is not yet an announcement or a notification of being open for submissions; I need to run numbers first and organise the website. Consider it the softest of soft launches, and await further news in early January.

Wednesday 29 December 2021

I Got Your Community Right Here

I have written quite a lot down the years about the word 'community' and its uses and abuses. 

I've recently been considering in some depth what it means, for two reasons. The first is that early this year I moved to an area with a very strong community (it's the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else by at most two degrees of separation) and found myself immersed within it by virtue of having a school age child. It is like living in the 1950s. There is a traditional high street with a butcher, greengrocer, baker and so on; the kids all walk to school together in the morning and all play in the local park afterwards; people stop and say 'hello' to each other as they pass; there are thriving karate clubs and weight-loss groups and baby yoga classes and all the rest. Elements of it are vomit-inducingly bourgeois (baby yoga being a case in point; the area even has 100% Liberal Democrat local councillors). But it certainly beats having no community at all. 

The second reason is that after decades of respectful agnosticism I've recently restarted semi-regular churchgoing, and have rediscovered the low-key virtues of high-church Anglicanism, the unique smell and temperature of English church halls, and the 'oddly reassuring and reassuringly odd' nature of parish life. A church congregation also has many of the characteristics of a community: a bunch of people who have nothing in common except that they live reasonably close by, and apparently share a common faith. (I use the word 'apparently' advisedly - it simply isn't done in Anglican churches to actually discuss personal religious belief.) It isn't the same as a 'community' strictly understood, for reasons which I'll come to, but there is a close connection. 

'Community' is a particular form of human association that is chiefly defined by what it is not. It is not family, or friendship. Nor is it what you might call 'civil association' - the loose ties of common respect for the law which are necessary to make society function at all. It's not a business or charity. It is not quite the same as a tribe or subculture or 'scene'. Nor is it exactly a neighbourhood, because there are plenty of neighbourhoods with no community at all. Rather, it's what you get when a certain number of people are brought together chiefly by happenstance - because they have ended up living in the same area - and interact with each other regularly enough to become familiar. They are together through fate rather than choice, but they do choose to engage with one another beyond the level of mere coexistence. 

It is not necessary to like, or even get along well with, the other members of a community. People can even detest one another - as long as they do it relatively discreetly and do not puncture the veneer of civility. All that is really necessary is polite toleration and somewhat regular interaction. Enough of the members have to see one another regularly enough - even if just to say 'hello' to - to generate a critical mass of baseline familiarity.

A church congregation, then - just like a baby yoga class, indeed - is not really a community in this sense. Nor is a sports club or political group or local charity, or a pub or cafe or post office. But all of these things do help foster it by providing the opportunities for interaction upon which community rests. (And it is often when all or most of these things have disappeared from a neighbourhood that its community collapses, because it means that people are no longer interacting with one another frequently enough to be familiar.) Some of these are more important than others, depending on the nature of the community in question. But all of them help.

What does this have to do with the OSR, then? Until recently, you would have had a very hard time convincing me that an online scene like the OSR could ever really meet the description of a 'community' as such. Too online, too diffuse, too anonymous, and with a membership united by a shared interest rather than the mere happenstance of living near one another. I am probably, on balance, still of that view. But I can also see that there is an argument from the other side - that the OSR might be thought of as a loose collective of individuals who interact frequently enough to generate a certain level of shared familiarity, such that, if we don't all know each other or communicate directly, there is a certain level of recognition of particular names, aliases and relationships sufficient enough to make us a simulacrum of what a real human community is. That it is no substitute for the real thing does not in itself invalidate the analogy.

To extend the analogy further: is a blog something like a village pub, with a rotating irregular cast of visitors coming and going from evening to evening? Is a Discord server like a post office or off-license through which people continuously flow through the course of the day? And is a forum like a church, full of ageing parishioners still gamely plodding along and slowly slewing off members from year to year?

Tuesday 28 December 2021

2021 in Review

2021 has been a good year in my gaming life, mirroring - whether through causation or mere correlation - a good year for personal development all round. 

In late January I began running a weekly D&D Rules Cyclopedia campaign, 'The Three Mile Tree'. which has continued all year, missing I think only two weeks total. Momentum is strong and the regular crew - you know who you are - have been great sports. (Next week, we find out whether any of them will survive their encounter with the giant lynx displacer beasts.) It has been good to be reminded that 'with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams' role playing is still a fun hobby. 

In July I published the first volume of Orbis Immobilis, the Fixed World. This is the first product I've actually managed to release since I think the spring of 2016, despite having three (count 'em) projects otherwise completed and ready to go. I sincerely hope that logjam will be cleared in 2022, releasing a veritable flood of sheer, unadulterated stuff - and the next volume of The Fixed World is already half done.

Overall I am pleased with my blogging output over the past 12 months. Quantity has been lower than I would have wished, but I think average quality has improved after a relatively barren 2020. Some posts that I was actually quite proud of include my review of the Lyonesse and Gaean Reach RPGs, Summerland, or the Spookiness of Rural England in AugustAsking 'What Then?'Name That SubcultureThe Patch Adams Problem, and this review of Jack Vance's Emphyrio. I also did a well-received interview with Patrick Stuart and enjoyed being interviewed in turn. (And, though nobody else seemed to like them, I got a kick of writing the Tournament of the Gods entries.)

I also actually bought quite a lot of stuff this year. Not all of it was great, but I really enjoyed Punth: A PrimerThe Gardens of Ynn, and Pariah. I was encouraged that there is still space within what I would call the 'substance over style' bracket. What I would like to see more of in 2022 is really excellent material that looks as though some earnest amateur, without particular artistic skill, really tried hard to put together something half-decent in MS Word and then exported it as a PDF. I mean that entirely non-facetiously.

Otherwise, let's keep going. Avoid social media, run games, write/draw stuff, and read good books. That's what I hope to do in the year to come. 

Monday 27 December 2021

Annoying Evil Idiot Fucks

Has it really come to this? Must we fight

95% of the RPG world is this. 4% of it is this. 0.9% is this and this. It is a terrible scene: over-excited, frothy, consumerist, bland, and decadent. 

In our sliver of the last 0.1% of the remaining terrain, we must pull together like emperor penguins at the onset of the antarctic autumn. Our aim: to survive the winter with our eggs intact - a task that is difficult enough given that the winter may be eternal. Disunity will do nothing but expose us to the wind and ice. Only common purpose will see us through.

Patrick, Prince: shake hands. I don't care who started it. Let's get back to doing what we do best - making stuff that people of discernment and taste will enjoy, and, above all, writing complete wank on our blogs.

[Edit, 27th December 2021: The title is a Bill Hicks reference, not a finger pointed at anybody.]

Thursday 23 December 2021

The Unbearable Lightness of Planescape

The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with Kundera's famous riff on Nietzsche's myth of eternal return. As Kundera's narrator points out, we don't (at least as far as we know) live our lives over and over again. Instead, we only live once. 

Because we only live once, we have no way of knowing whether any decision we have made was the right or wrong one, even after the fact. We can never know what would have happened if we had acted differently. This, the narrator suggests, liberates us. We can never really blame ourselves for any decision we make, because we never act with foresight. If we had chosen differently, things could have been worse, and there is never any way of knowing.

But, the narrator goes on to observe, as well as being liberating, this fact that we only live once makes our lives ephemeral: we can't go back and correct our mistakes, with the benefit of hindsight. Every decision we have made stands, and cannot be undone. It would be one thing if our lives were a rehearsal before the main event, so we could make a better go of it second time around. But since that's not the case, our lives are 'unbearably light' - we cannot blame ourselves for anything we have done, but nor can we right all of our many wrongs. In the end, since we only live once, 'we might as well not have lived at all'.

It must be pointed out that although Kundera writes in the first person here, the argument is being made by an unreliable narrator and the whole point of the novel (spoiler alert) is that this nihilistic notion must be utterly refuted. But there is something to this idea that total liberation is attendant on existence being ultimately futile. Absolute freedom presumes there being absolutely no constraint on one's field of action, which means absolute absence of consequence. But the consequence of that is an 'unbearable lightness'. Where our actions have no consequence, we might as well not act, or exist, at all.

I was thinking about this while looking through old Planescape materials yesterday. There is something intangible, airy, ineffectual about Planescape. Yes, the art is beautiful, the production values second to none. Yes, it has a mood and a tonal palette that is totally different from any other fantasy setting. Those qualities impressed me as an adolescent. But now it feels inconsequential, in all senses of the word - like a museum piece, to be regarded and admired, rather than a real world to be explored. Nothing going on within it really seems to matter. 

The problem, I think, is that in an infinite multiverse in which anything can happen, one slips easily to the conclusion that nothing might as well happen. What, ultimately, are the consequences to anything one does? A character dies, another comes along, totally different to the one before; one location is explored, another multitude of others presents itself; one level of the Abyss is visited, and an infinite number more await; the cosmic ballet goes on - and the setting remains, held in a ball of infinitely large aspic. 

It is a little like the experience I now have whenever I put on Netflix or another streaming service. A million options present themselves, and ennui sets in. It's not as simple as 'analysis paralysis', though that's part of it; it's something deeper. It's that, given so many options, the very act of choosing itself becomes diminished. If one can watch only four channels, as was the case when I were a lad, the choice is imbued with significance: you might end up watching something bad, and missing something good. If one can watch more or less anything, and switch between them at will, the choice becomes so insignificant and devoid of consequence that it hardly feels worth being made. If one can watch anything, why indeed watch anything at all? If one can play any sort of campaign in an infinite multiverse, why play anything at all?

Tuesday 21 December 2021

I Got My Philosophy

Can game design be applied philosophy? I think so. Some people might say everything is applied philosophy, but usually unconsciously; I will leave that topic for another occasion.

Michael Oakeshott understood modernity as a response to the dissolution of communal ties that existed in the medieval era. In times past, people understood themselves primarily in accordance with their status, and the rights and obligations that derived from it. This made their self-understanding relational, and comparatively fixed. In modernity, by contrast, people became free, whether they liked it or not, and now had to confront the world as individuals. You are not who you are because of a status deriving from birth or marriage - you are what you make of yourself

This makes freedom a challenge. Some people relish this prospect, and use the opportunity to pursue their life as an adventure. Others see it as a burden, full of unwanted risk and anxiety, and seek to avoid freedom where they can. The former are the stuff of classical liberalism (what a post-structuralist would call 'the liberal subject'); the latter are vulnerable to exploitation by authoritarians, who are willing to exert choices and make decisions on their behalf. 

This was a common concern among 20th century philosophers who had witnessed first hand the rise of authoritarianism in the interwar period. The thinkers of the Frankfurt School - Fromm, Horkheimer, Marcuse - would very much have agreed with Oakeshott's assessment. Something about the conditions of postindustrial modernity produced in a large section of the population (perhaps even the majority of the population) a deep sense of alienation, powerlessness and unease, and it was this that led them to put their faith in the hypertrophied State. The 'fear of freedom', as Fromm called it, drove the masses into the arms of totalitarianism: better that than suffer the psychic angst of having to make decisions for oneself and deal with the consequences.

This bleak vision is tempered by William Galston's notion that education can inculcate in people the kind of character traits that will equip them for life in a liberal society. If they do not inherit the virtues of self-reliance, prudence, civility, and cooperativeness from their parents and communities, they can be taught them. This is what a liberal education is ultimately all about - shaping future generations into responsible actors who will respond to freedom in the appropriate way, and will be able to take advantage of its opportunities without fear (or descent into license). 

In other words, while there are probably people who are predisposed, due to innate character traits or circumstance, to 'fear freedom', there is no reason why this should fate us to some kind of totalitarian impulse. And, in any case, the truth is that we probably all have our moments in which freedom appears to us as a burden that we would rather not carry: think, for example, of the last time you agonised over having to make a decision (say, whether or not to buy a house, or change jobs). In your heart of hearts, did you at that time never have the feeling of longing for a benevolent dictator to come along and make the decision for you? Would that not have struck you as a blessed release from the torment of being unable to decide? Ultimately, you would probably have recognised that there is something more authentic, more valuable, in making such decisions for yourself and living with the consequences, and there would have been something dehumanising about having the choice made for you. But one can recognise the impulse in oneself to seek to avoid the tyranny of options - what Kundera was meant by 'the unbearable lightness of being'.

So what does this have to do with role playing games? The superiority of sandbox-type play to the railroaded adventure path is, I think, found in its recognition that there is something more authentic about both DM and players exercising freedom - to arrange things as desired, and to pursue options within a broad scope of possibility, respectively. It is often more attractive to rely on pre-written, pre-plotted, published 'adventures', particularly when the alternative is the wearisome task of having to sit there with a blank piece of paper and pencil and think for oneself. At such times, the benevolent dictator of Paizo or WotC can have his appeal. But going down that road also somehow diminishes us. 

This also suggests, I think, that the most worthwhile RPG products are the ones that educate - that provide the reader with the tools to run a sandbox game. It is the Kevin Crawfords of this world who are giving us what we truly need, and which will encourage in us the embrace, rather than the fear, of gaming freedom. 

Thursday 16 December 2021

On Monasteries of the Mind

It increasingly feels as though "the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and has overturned the order of the soul" - no? Set the substantive arguments about the state of the world to one side. Can we at least agree that it doesn't seem foreseeable that we will ever see a time when politics is stable and sublimely irrelevant in the way that it was in, say, 1998, again? Watch an episode of Friends, Frasier, or Seinfeld. That is a world strongly characterised by an absence of fraughtness. That is a world that looks to the future with optimism. That is no longer the world we inhabit. 

At such times, we must all become Marcus Aurelius, Baruch Spinoza, Matsuo Basho: we must recognise that we cannot bend the material world with our reasons or our wills, but we can detach our emotions from external causes. We can retreat to monasteries of the mind, and pursue whatever interests elevate us, nourish us, and sustain us. 

We can, in short, escape. We can think about elf-games. Outside, all is chaos: "I've seen the future, brother, it is murder." But here I sit by my fire, drinking whisky and making notes for next week's D&D session. It involves swanmays. Some may call this childish escapism. To which I can only respond: it's better than getting angry about what's in the news or on Twitter. That would be like opening the windows of my mental monastery in a storm. And I'd probably give myself ulcers, or an aneurysm, or something. 

Anyway, in summary: I continue to write things, quite a lot of things, just not for the blog. There will be big announcements in the new year. In the mean time, spend some time in your own respective monasteries, and send me a carrier pigeon or two if the mood strikes you:

Thursday 2 December 2021

Towards an Aquatic-Aerial Combat System

My usual MO when running combat in D&D is to draw rough sketches to show where the combatants are in relation to one another. Some people use minis. Both of these methods can be easily replicated if running a game online.

Problems arise, however, the instant things get properly three-dimensional. The thing about fighting on land is that everybody is on the same (horizontal) plane. Underwater, or in the air, people can come at each other from above or underneath; indeed, manoeuvring to try to take advantage of altitude (or depth) would be a significant element of combat in such environments, and a large part of what would make it interesting.

The issue is that keeping track of objects in a three-dimensional space is really hard, and not something human beings, used to walking around on horizontal surfaces, readily intuit. This is probably why even in SF films and TV series set in space, we tend to find vessels interacting with one another on the same plane, as though they are resting on top of some sort of invisible intergalactic field rather than objects in an infinite void able to approach one another from any angle. Hence:

Trying to run combat underwater or in the air (or in space, for that matter) and doing a plausible job of it therefore would, I think, involve abandoning diagrams and instead reconceptualising combat as a true 'melee', with a totally fluid mass of combatants. The basic idea would be:

  • Within the melee itself, anybody can attack anybody else each round; there is no need to keep track of position
  • A more manoeuvrable combatant can elect to attack a less manoeuvrable one from above or below, gaining a bonus
  • A combatant can attack an equally manoeuvrable combatant from above or below through a contested roll, or by leaving itself open to some kind of flanking or opportunity attack
  • Slower or less manoeuvrable combatants get fewer attacks

Tuesday 30 November 2021

The Core and Penumbra of Meaning

To bastardise things slightly, the English legal philosoper HLA Hart described rules as having a "core" and "penumbra" of meaning. At the core, everyone can agree what the meaning of the words are. At the penumbra, they can't, and will have reasonable disagreement. Hence, consider the rule, "No vehicles in the park."

Everybody knows this means that cars, trucks, buses etc. aren't allowed in the park. But does it include bicycles? Skateboards? Aeroplanes? Toy cars? Ambulances? What about (to use Lon Fuller's famous counterexample) a military truck set up in the park as a war memorial?

Different rules vary, of course, in terms of how much "core" they are, and how much "penumbra". Consider:

A: "All applications must be recieved by 5pm on Friday 29th February."

B: "An exclusion clause is invalid unless the party seeking to rely on the clause can prove it is reasonable."

Rule A is mostly core - there is little to disagree about. Rule B is mostly penumbra. What is "reasonable"? It depends. There are probably examples of exclusion clauses which any sane person would agree are reasonable or unreasonable, but the list is small and there are many more examples where universal agreement is not possible. 

The rules of D&D are mostly almost entirely "core" and contain little "penumbra". ("You need to roll your THAC0, subtracting your opponent's AC, on 1d20 in order to hit.") This is why there seems to be something wrong with fudging. In a system which has clear rules without much penumbra, we can all identify very easily when the rules are being broken. If you need to get a 16 to hit, there is no way that reasonable people can disagree and suggest a 15 is good enough. If you need to get a 12 on a save vs death roll, there is no way that a roll of 5 can be interpreted as being sufficient to save you.

A lot of people who play D&D evade this issue with concealed sub-rules which might be said to broaden the penumbra of meaning in an underhand way. A lot of DMs run with rules like, "If a monster needs a particular score on 1d20 to hit, then I need to get that number on my d20 roll unless I consider it preferable that the monster should not hit." Or, "If a player needs to get a particular score on 1d20 for his PC to save ve death, then this shall apply unless it wouldn't suit the dramatic requirements of the narrative in the given moment."

The problem here is that when one enters the realm of the "penumbra" of meaning, one finds oneself in the zone of discretion. If I need a 16 to hit, there is no discretion in the application of the rule. If I need a 16 to hit unless the DM thinks that it wouldn't suit the dramatic requirements of the narrative at that given moment, I am at the whim of his discretion and the application of the rule thus appears arbitrary. As a consequence, I start to become suspicious (perhaps justifiably, perhaps not) about the DM's motives, just as people become suspicious of a legal system in which judges appear to be founding their decisions not on clear rules, but on political or other extra-legal considerations. This, for those of you interested in legal philosophy, is the window into what the legal realists (the subject of some of Hart's criticisms) were talking about, and thereby the critical legal theorists who descended from them: are judges making decisions on the basis of formal rules, or considerations and biases that have nothing to do with law at all? 

In summary, I suppose one can say that fudging dice rolls is a bad idea for all kinds of reasons, but one of the main ones is that it makes the DM appear capricious and biased even if this is not in fact the case.

Friday 26 November 2021

Jumping in at the Deep End - On Starting Reading a Series Halfway Through

When I was about 10 or so a friend of mine came to school one day with a book he'd got from the local library. It was something called The Fellowship of the Ring, and it was by the same person who had written The Hobbit. My friend told me it was good, and I remember being spellbound by the cover, which seemed to hint at something beautiful, sophisticated and strange:

The problem was, my friend had borrowed the only copy from the library, and I didn't have the money to buy it for myself. So I did the next best thing and borrowed what I was told by the librarian was "the sequel", The Two Towers, instead. 

I sometimes wonder if this unorthodox way of coming to The Lord of the Rings is what resulted in it having captivated me ever since. There are certain advantages to coming to a series in the second or third volume, rather than the first. Usually, you'll begin in media res, for one thing, giving a feeling of being swept along in the narrative right from the start. (That's certainly the case with The Lord of the Rings; you couldn't get a more different experience to the sedate, extended opening to The Fellowship of the Ring than starting off at the top of the Falls of Rauros with Aragorn hunting orcs.) 

But really, the value of reading a series of books this way is how it stimulates the brain. Second volumes contain little infodump, forcing the new reader to fill in huge gaps in her knowledge with her sheer imagination; they are full of hints and allusions to what came before, the meaning of which can only be the subject of wild speculation; they require the reader not just to imagine, but also in part to create her own version of whatever "Volume I" contained. What is more, they require her to keep this alternative conception, this through-the-looking-glass version of the first part of the story, constantly updated because of its contingency on new information uncovered in the course of reading the sequels. Who is Aragorn? You start off The Two Towers with first on idea, then another, and then another again, and, lacking a clear idea of his origins, you have to mould and shape the person you understand him to be in your mind as you read. If anything, this exercise makes you more engaged and focused than you would otherwise be; you have to work at piecing together the puzzle - like a detective story for the imagination. 

I haven't made a habit of skipping first volumes, exactly, but my experience with The Lord of the Rings was borne out by jumping in at the deep end with series such as The Many-Coloured Land, Sorcery!, the Night's Dawn trilogy, a few of the Moorcock series, and other relatively mediocre fare that have been much enlivened by the exercise. The next time you see a multivolume epic fantasy series sitting on the shelves of your local bookshop or library, give it a whirl and launch yourself into things halfway through. You may find yourself being pleasantly surprised. 

Thursday 25 November 2021

Books Read in 2021, Ranked

I am unlikely to finish any more books this year, as the one I am currently reading is very long and involved. So I thought I would rank the ones that I have finished this year from best to worst (there is a lot of Jack Vance in the list - sorry):

Fathers and Sons (Ivan Turgenev): This is probably among the most important novels ever written - a work of the most profound empathy and insight, and a wonderful antidote to the fragmentation, bad faith and factionalism of modern culture. If you've never read it, do so at once.

Ecce and Old Earth (Jack Vance): There are problems with the structure of this novel, but I don't remember having enjoyed reading a book as much as I did this one in many years. The central section was the literary equivalent of a dinner at The French Laundry. Just sublime. 

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Robert Caro): As a longstanding fan of Robert Caro's work I was always reticent to read this, knowing that it would likely come to obsess me. It did. Don't read it unless you want a 1700 page book about town planning in New York between 1930-1970 to take over your life for two months, causing you to forget mealtimes and appointments and become an annoying disappointment to your spouse. 

The Plague (Albert Camus): As I wrote in my Goodreads review: "This novel was apparently understood on its publication as being an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France (and my edition has an afterword by Tony Judt which goes to some lengths to justify this reading of the text). But if indeed Camus himself intended it to be read this way, the fact that it resonates so strongly with readers during the 'Covid era' is testament to a great novelist's insights into the human condition, which can give his work new meanings and interpretations, and fresh value, almost a century later. It is a moving monument to the power of literature that Camus said more of what needed to be said about Covid in the 1940s than all of the combined scientific, sociological and political treatises of 2020-2021 put together."

Emphyrio (Jack Vance): I wrote a longish quasi-review of this book here, and have nothing really to add to it, except to reiterate that it really is science fiction of the highest rank - the equal of The Book of the New Sun, if much more compact. 

Wyst: Alastor 1716 (Jack Vance): This is an interesting companion piece to Emphyrio, as it has a similar subject - what might be called the human condition under collectivism. Like Emphyrio, it has an emotional depth that is often absent from Vance's work; you really care about poor Jantiff and his dogged resistance to misfortune. It's just a shame that the final act feels a little rushed. 

The Hobbit (JRR Tolkien): What can be said abut The Hobbit that has not been said? This is probably the 10th time I've read it. I can confirm that it is still in working order.

The Coming of the Third Reich (Richard Evans): This is popular, narrative history at its finest - rigorous, but easy to read and lacking academic fustiness. The story retains its capacity to shock: political violence destroys democracy, and the lack of a shared national narrative can be fatal to a state's survival. 

The Third Reich in Power (Richard Evans): See above. If the story of how the Nazis came to power is brutal and horribly plausible, the tale of what they did with it prior to the war itself is terrifying. What happened to the German Jews - the slow ratchet of isolation, disempowerment, and dispossession - simply cannot lose its power, no matter how much the word 'Nazi' has become denuded of its meaning through overuse. It's hair-raising, and Evans does it justice with a masterfully calm and unexaggerated retelling. 

The State (Anthony de Jasay): De Jasay's account of the state's inevitable growth is genuinely sui generis and, in its own way, heretical. It is the political philosophy equivalent of outsider art. Anybody genuinely interested in libertarian thought should read it. 

On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth (Bertrand de Jouvenel): A great companion piece to de Jasay's The State, this is a very different book - literary, dramatic, sweeping - but similarly iconoclastic. I was struck when reading them by the quality that 'lived experience' gives to works of political philosophy; these men cut from very different cloth from that of the modern academic, who has seen nothing but lecture theatres and classrooms and his own pleasant office. In Communist Hungary and Vichy France, respectively, they had experienced first hand the phenomena which they were addressing, and it gives their work an urgency that is impossible to fake. 

Araminta Station (Jack Vance): An unusual book, that slightly awkwardly slips from comedy of manners to police procedural to interstellar travelogue, producing the sense that it was rather being made up as Vance went along. Luckily, the writing, characters and worldbuilding are so good that you can readily forgive it its sins.

Marune: Alastor 933 (Jack Vance): Another unusual book, which few authors would have the sheer gall to write. It is as though Vance deliberately challenged himself to create as implausible and dislikable a culture as he could think of, and turn it into the compelling subject for a novel regardless. He is equal to the task.

Trullion: Alastor 2262 (Jack Vance): As with all of Vance's best work, there is something profound going on beneath the surface of this tale, which at first glance presents itself as an enjoyable romp, but hints that there are very bleak, dark things in the human heart. 

The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties (Christopher Caldwell): This is genuine balls-to-the-wall iconoclasm - what being countercultural really looks like in 2021. Nobody comes away unscathed, whether Hugh Hefner, Ronald Reagan, LBJ or Martin Luther King, and it is written with such bile, directed at so many targets, that at times it seems even the author himself can't quite keep track of who he is supposed to be skewering at any given moment. A book to blow away cobwebs. 

Short Breaks in Mordor: Dawns and Departures of a Scribbler's Life (Peter Hitchens): Peter Hitchens is a better writer than his more famous brother, and has many more interesting things to say, but I was slightly annoyed that this collection of his superlative travel writing is really only half a book - most of the essays were printed in both the Mail on Sunday and American Conservative, and for some reason it was thought best to provide the two almost identical versions for each. 

Slouching Toward Bethlehem (Joan Didion): This is a very mixed bag. I am a big fan of Didion's prose; there are few writers indeed who have devoted so much care and effort to the construction of sentences on a page. Yet many of the essays in the collection are now mere historical curios: does anybody care now what Joan Baez had to say about the war in Vietnam, or what the hippies of Haight-Ashbury thought they were doing as the 1960s collapsed around their ears? Oddly, the best of the bunch is the short piece on John Wayne, which ought to be less relevant still, but is as touching and entertaining as non-fiction writing can be.

The Second World Wars (Victor Davis Hanson): I have read a lot of books about the Second World War, and this stands out for achieving something I don't think I have previously encountered: explaining carefully, in detail, why it was the unglamorous stuff (logistics, geography, industrial capacity, cost-benefit analysis), rather than generalship or fighting ability, that won the war.

Batavia's Graveyard (Mike Dash): I'm not sure that this book tells us anything about the human condition, or anything, but it sure is a lurid and exciting tale. What happens when a gnostic psychopath finds himself in charge of the survivors of a shipwreck hundreds of miles from authority of any kind? Well, very bad things indeed. 

Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural (Algernon Blackwood): "The Man Whom the Trees Loves" is the standout in terms of literary quality, but the GPA of the many short stories contained in this collection is pretty high. Blackwood reveals himself to be more than just a pulp writer, but a lyrical and expressive prose stylist with far more interesting ideas than, for example, HP Lovecraft.

Throy (Jack Vance): A sadly rather forgettable end to the Cadwal series, but an entertaining romp all the same. 

The Turn of the Screw (Henry James): Sadly, the modern reader who comes to this novella brings so much horror baggage to it that the tale really lacks the capacity to scare them. What the story hints at is really very disturbing, but ultimately the feeling is one of disappointment.

Life at the Bottom (Theodore Dalrymple): Dalrymple is a brilliant writer, and this collection of anecdotes and musings on his many years spent as a psychotherapist in prisons and hospitals has the weight of vast experience and insight behind it. But God, it's a depressing read, made all the more so for the fact that nobody who ought to read and pay attention to it will.

A War Like No Other (Victor Davis Hanson): This is a faintly dissatisfying book, which can't seem to make up its mind who its audience is: lay people, or scholars? Perhaps the problem is that I wanted a narrative account of the war, and should have just gone ad fontes to Thucydides himself. 

Taking Rights Seriously (Ronald Dworkin): A re-read, it probably being 12 years since I read it last. Dworkin remains arrogant, frustrating, and wrong, but endearingly so; there is something truly quixotic about his quest to get to the bottom of things through sheer force of reason - a true example of 20th century liberalism's finest qualities. 

The Conservative Mind (Russel Kirk): This, ultimately, reads like what it is: the ravings of a very gifted but naive young scholar, fresh from writing a PhD, telling you about his academic crushes. Great bibliography and footnotes, though.

The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (Christopher Lasch): Lasch is, I understand, undergoing something of a renaissance or reassessment, and I am sympathetic to his basic argument. But I just can't say I read this book on the edge of my seat. 

Natural Right and History (Leo Strauss): I am not ashamed to say this went over my head for the most part. I mean, I've read Derrida, Voegelin, Jellinek, Hobbes, Austin. I can do impenetrable. But the meaning of this really did elude me. 

Sing Backwards and Weep: A Memoir (Mark Lanegan): I love Mark Lanegan's music and the era in which he was making it, but his junkie reminiscences are pretty self-pitying and self-indulgent, like junkies so often are. 

Law and the Modern Mind (Jerome Frank): We live in Jerome Frank's world, in many ways, but the psychobabble which accompanies his observations about adjudication are trite and simplistic, and this book is really now of historical interest only, for all that it was apparently once influential. 

A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law (Antonin Scalia and others): This is really just a longish law journal article penned by Scalia, with a few rather banal responses from bigwigs in the American legal academy. It's only when Dworkin enters the fray that we feel as though we are getting somewhere, but that's really just the last 10 pages of the book.

The Genius of Birds (Jennifer Ackerman): I was so up for reading a book about bird intelligence - I can't think of a person who would be a more receptive audience for it than me - but perhaps because of my expectations being too high, I found this to be rather boring. Too many popular science books neglect the importance of good writing, and this is a prime example.

The Unauthorised Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (Robin Lane Fox): What is there to say, other than that there is an interesting book to be written on the subject of "Truth and Fiction in the Bible", but this isn't it?

Pile: Petals from St Klaed's Computer (Brian Aldiss): The art in this book is wonderful, but the poetry accompanying it is appalling doggerel  - like something written by Adrian Mole. I mean, "By hidden ways and secret circumbendibus/they reach the Oracle, all tremulous." Come on Brian, you wrote Helliconia, for fuck's sake, man!

The Last Days of New Paris (China Mieville): This is bad stuff from Mieville. Absolute minimal effort, titanically uninteresting characters even by his own low standards, and slapdash, monotonous writing. A phoned-in effort that reads like it was written to fulfil a contractual obligation - or just as a vehicle for Mieville to show off how much he knows about 1920s French art. 

On Grand Strategy (John Lewis Gaddis): I had to put this down after a few chapters. It is, frankly, the work of a complete and utter pseud. 

Ness (Robert Macfarlane): This is supposed to be a kind of "prose-poem" set in Orford Ness and featuring weird nature spirits. If that sounds appealing in theory, let me reassure you that in practice it is just shit - pretentious drivel from start to finish. Avoid. 

Monday 22 November 2021

Tragedy and Satire in Nerd Games

Mainstream culture has become exceptionally literal; we now have a hard time processing tragedy or satire. The recent 40K controversy illustrates this neatly. If I was Iain McGilchrist I might attribute this to the creeping dominance of left-brain thinking, but sometimes I wonder if the problem is just that people aren't spending enough time reading proper books. 

How does one define tragedy? I think the simplest and best description is that tragedy is fiction which reminds us that fundamentally virtuous people with good intentions can nonetheless end up in bad situations (and, perhaps, those bad situations arise precisely because of those good intentions). 

How does one define satire? Again, sticking with a simple description, it is what Chesterton called the "only moral to everything": "[S]uperiority is always insolent...pride goes before a fall...and [there] is such a thing as being too clever by half." It is fiction that reminds us that people often puff themselves up with their own sense of virtue and thereby overlook the fact that they lack it in crucial respects. 

Tragedy and satire are in that sense two halves of the same coin. They remind us that there is not a direct line going from having a sense of acting virtuously and achieving virtuous results. Basically, happy endings don't follow from being "a good person". The main difference is that in a tragedy, it is probably necessary that the protagonists are actually good people, whereas in a satire, they aren't, but think that they are (or present themselves as such).

It is foolish to suggest that tragedy and satire each only serve one function, but they undoubtedly share a main function, which is to remind us that you cannot immanentise the eschaton. You may think yourself to possess powerful insights that will allow you to realise a better world, perhaps even an ideal world, but you are undoubtedly wrong. Your vision will only realise itself as tragedy or as farce. 

This is why political extremists of all stripes hate and fear both tragedy and satire. Soviet and Nazi art were nothing but kitsch: art in which "shit is denied". For the ideologue, there is a path from having the right intentions to the right results. There is no space for tragedy or satire in that kind of moral universe. Both tragedy and satire are fundamentally about shit - reminders of the existence of shit - and that cannot be tolerated. If one believes that one is on the path to achieving a desired end-state, then the inevitable continued existence of shit has to be denied, and forcefully.

Warhammer 40K embodies elements of both tragedy and satire. On the one hand, having good intentions (defending humanity against foes which would see it utterly corrupted or destroyed) does not necessarily lead to good outcomes, and in fact, ironically, itself creates bad ones (what you are defending itself becomes corrupted in the attempt). On the other, it has always had its tongue in its cheek: yes, the space marines look cool, but they are also ridiculous, melodramatic and po-faced, and we're all in on that joke. And, of course, if you don't want to think about it in either of those terms - look, John Blanche art and cool models and explosions.

In a literalising culture like the one which we inhabit, one wonders if this can last. Sooner or later, will the powers that be at Games Workshop be forced into playing down these elements of tragedy and satire, and transforming 40K into something more recognisable to mainstream understandings of the nature of fiction? Something more akin to the kind of morality play which increasingly dominates film, TV and fiction, in which the good people with good intentions achieve good results in the end and the bad people get their just deserts? At the moment, their defence against accusations of political incorrectness (yes, we have honestly come to the point at which a fictional dystopia which nobody in their right mind would want to live in, set 38,000 years in the future, is being criticised for being politically incorrect) is tipping into a reliance on it being a "satire". I don't expect that to last.

Friday 19 November 2021

Human Non-Universals, or: Make Your Own Vancian Culture (tm)

"Remember," Anacho warned, "the Khors are a sensitive people. Do not speak to them; pay them no heed except from necessity, in which case you must use the fewest possible words. They consider garrulity a crime against nature. Do not stand upwind of a Khor, nor if possible downwind; such acts are symbolic of antagonism. Never acknowledge the presence of a woman; do not look toward their children - they will suspect you of laying a curse; and above all ignore their sacred grove. Their weapon is the iron dart which they throw with astonishing accuracy; they are a dangerous people." 

"I hope I remember everything," said Reith.

-From Jack Vance, The Dirdir

One of Vance's neatest tricks and the secret of his worldbuilding success is to create a culture with unusual, even absurd, characteristics and then play out the consequences completely straight. You see this technique, if that's the right world, appear time and again in his Tschai and Gaean Reach books, and it is a large part of what gives them their appeal - if you want to learn 'What then?' worldbuilding from a master, Vance's science fiction writing is the place to start. 

But if you want to cheat, try this Make Your Own Vancian Culture Generator (tm):

First, determine the rough lifestyle technology level of the culture:

1 - Stone age, 2 - Bronze age, 3-4 - Medieval, 5-6 - Renaissance, 7-9 Industrial revolution, 10-14, Contemporary modern, 15-28 - Gaean Reach standard, 29-30 - Hyper-advanced 

This does not indicate the limit of technological advancement of the society, but rather the general level of social development enjoyed in the average settlement. 

Then, determine the culture's geographic origin:

1-2 - Swamp, 3-4 - Hills, 5-6 - Mountains, 7-10 - Forest, 11-14 - Plains, 15-16 - Jungle, 17-18 - Desert, 19-20 - Aquatic

Next, determine its d3 absurdities by rolling on the following table (adapted by subverting elements of the list of 67 'Human Universals' proposed by the anthropologist Donald Brown):




Lack of abstract thought


No affection expressed or felt


No distinctions made between different age grades (such as ‘child’, ‘middle-aged’, ‘old’)


No religion


No belief in fortune or misfortune


Biological and social mother are usually a different person


Abhorrence of body adornment


No classification of colours


No classification of flora or fauna


No classification of kin


No classification of weather conditions


No classification of sex


No conflict


No cooking


Taboo against sex in private


No cooperation


Absence of greetings


Absence of daily routine


No distinction between right and wrong




No understanding that dreams are not reality


Lack of envy


No etiquette rules


No facial expressions


No fear of death


Lack of figurative speech


Generosity considered weak


Lack of gift-giving


Absence of group living


No attempts made to heal sick or injured


No concept of imagery


No rules concerning inheritance


No concept of inheritance


No concept of humour


Language is only a simply reflection of reality


No concept of law


No distinction made between general and particular


Women dominate public realm


Women more aggressive


Women more prone to lethal violence


Women more prone to theft


No concept of meal times


No concept of metaphor


No prohibition of murder


No numbers


No personal names


No concept of poetry


No concept of music


No concept of promising


No concept of revenge


Extreme risk-aversion


No concept of punishment


Lack of shame


Time only understood as cyclical


No concept of trade


Language has no verbs


Language has no nouns


No concept of weapons



No death rituals



No preference for one’s own children or close kin


Then, determine its d3 Suspicions and Taboos:


Suspicion or Taboo


Standing upwind of someone


Standing downwind of someone


Walking across somebody’s path


Entering a building without explicit invitation from someone inside


Sitting down in company


Eating in public


Being seen while asleep


Contact with animals


Being in the shade


Being in direct sunlight


Particular colour


Direct speech between members of the same sex, age category, etc.


Eye contact


Discussing intentions or desires in public


Refusing requests


Stepping on anything living


Being touched by rain




Being seen to be bleeding




Standing in front of, behind, or beside somebody


Encountering any acquaintance without performing extended ritualistic pleasantries 


Being seen/heard to ask for, or accept, money


Being seen to be breathless, sweaty, or having otherwise striven in the performance of any task


Being visible through a window


Exposing one’s hands, feet, nose, ears, etc.


Carrying anything in one’s hands


Asking a direct question


Picking anything up off the ground



Each of these suspicions or taboos might be vitiated:

1 - At certain times of day, 2 - After performing a particular ritual, 3 - While wearing a particular item of clothing or other body decoration, etc., 4 - On certain days each year, 5 - If performed by a person of a particular caste, or a particular type of person such as a man, woman, child, etc., 6 - After making a donation to a temple, etc.

The trick then is to combine all this into plausible societies. Hence:

The Sevelites inhabit the mountains of Sevel, where they have reached a comfortable level of technological development. They are a highly fastidious and taciturn people. Their language lacks figurative speech, and they communicate only to import or receive information. They also have a strict taboo against exposing their hands, and go about in gloves at all times; except for a particular hereditary servant caste they do not pick anything up off the ground unless it has been purified with a fine spray of salt water. A Sevelite's hands are seen only by a sexual partner; an ancient, secret tradition of pornography focuses on the hands as an erogenous zone, and complex codes and rituals concern its sale and usage.

The Masoon are native to the plains of Masurine, where they inhabit vast industrial cities refining crude resources for export. Their society is highly communal, regimented and homogenous: they make no classifications of colour (and themselves wear only white), make no distinctions between the general and the particular (considering themselves, and the resources they refine, to be part of unified wholes), and live in almost total harmony, having no understanding of the concept of conflict. They abhor being seen to be seated in company, lest they disrupt the tenor of communal exertion with perceived relaxation, and likewise consider whispering to undermine social cohesion with a desire for secrecy that must always be unnecessary.

See what you can come up with!