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!