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Friday 26 June 2020

Reclaim the dame

Along with climate awareness, millennials like to imagine they invented gender equality. Truth is, we were talking about sexism and racism back in the 20th century (and earlier; see Gissing's novel, below) and we were just as committed to ending all prejudice. That’s what Star Trek was all about. Regardless of modern cynicism, “We come in peace for all mankind” wasn’t an ironic statement for most who heard Neil Armstrong say it.

Likewise in games. My own original campaign was set in Tsolyanu, the Empire of the Petal Throne, which overtly allows for sexual equality by a woman declaring herself aridani. At that point she ceases to be a ward of the clan, as most women remain throughout their lives, and becomes the equal of a man in rights and responsibilities. (More detail about that here if you scroll down.)

Other ‘70s roleplaying settings allowed for female adventurers, of course. EPT wasn’t unique in that respect. But Professor Barker actually thought about how societies organize, and what it would mean to have the cultural mechanism for women to declare themselves equal. In theory a female player-character could even choose to remain non-aridani, though I’m not sure how much fun that would be. The point is, it’s a real choice with an upside and a downside.

In the D&D games I occasionally looked in on back then, gender equality was dealt with by treating the world as a sort of huge cosplay arena, with most NPCs acting as if they were in the Middle Ages and PCs as the guests bringing 20th (or 21st) century mores into that.

In the heyday of gamebooks we knew that 90% of our readers were boys, but I was always mindful of the other 10% (if not, back then, much aware of the fuzzy area of overlap between the two) and made sure to keep descriptions gender-neutral. For instance, if you were running from the town militia, as often seemed to happen in gamebooks, and Jamie or Oliver or Mark had written passers-by yelling “Stop him!” I’d remind them to change it to “Stop that thief!” or “Grab the miscreant!”

In the land of Legend as described in Dragon Warriors there is no societal provision for becoming aridani. The world is supposed to be like our medieval times, that’s the whole point. Female player-characters in DW could be whatever they wanted to be, even knights, but the prodigy of a female knight would be remarked on by the people they met. In the same way, a Mungoda hunter strolling through the streets of Ongus should expect to attract attention – Melville talks in the opening paragraphs of Billy Budd about just such a (black) Handsome Sailor archetype attracting “the tribute of a pause and stare, and less frequently an exclamation”.

But race is another post (and in fact I have an interesting tale about that; remind me). I said there was no formal cultural mechanism for gender equality in the Middle Ages, but knights belong to the nobility, and with class comes a whole set of social passkeys. Celia Fiennes or Lady Mary Wortley Montagu could carry themselves with swashbuckling disregard for the attitudes of their times and merely be regarded as eccentric. Agnes Hotot even reputedly tilted in the lists. (She was probably more Ronda Rousey than Keira Knightley, as I doubt if I could even move in tournament plate myself, much less climb onto a horse while carrying a lance.)

To be equal doesn’t have to mean being the same. In our world I doubt if we’ll ever see a lot of women firefighters or oil riggers. Female PCs in my Legend games usually opt to be sorcerer or assassin rather than an armour-clad beefcake, but if a female PC wants to be a knight, how should she style herself? There’s a trend these days to stamp out any gender difference in titles (actor/actress, dominator/dominatrix, etc) and there’s very good reason for that: we want to eliminate the preconceptions that may come with gender-specific titles. But a fantasy world should be colourful rather than politically correct, so I’m going to make a plea that players don’t opt for styling their female knights “Sir Agnes Hotot” or whatever. It’s a horrible, Gradgrindian intrusion of modern attitudes into the game world. What’s wrong with “Dame Agnes”? Dame is Middle English for a female ruler (cf the Dame of Sark) and derives from the Latin domina. By contrast, Sir comes from sire, which comes from the Latin word senior, in the sense of having higher status. And that ain't bad, but it's nothing like a dame.

Friday 19 June 2020

A good book is never hard work

What exactly is it that makes a book ‘difficult’? It could be handy to know. Lots of people cite difficulty as their main reason for giving up on a book, or not even getting past the first page and, if we don’t want to drown in the rapidly rising tide that is modern publishing, knowing what not to read is a knack we could all do with.

Some people have told me they find Dostoevsky and Tolstoy difficult. ‘It’s all the words.’ But isn’t prolixity a whole other thing? Granted, a long book can be as daunting as a hard one. I nearly reached for Game of Thrones until I saw the bookshelf sagging under the burden of those other volumes. But ‘all the words’ didn’t put people off Harry Potter or the Neapolitan novels – or Dan Brown’s thrillers which, by a corollary to Zeno’s Paradox, are technically interminable. From Dickens to Stephen King, popular fiction has never shied away from a swaggering word count, so that can’t be where difficulty really lies.

Is it in the unfamiliarity of the story’s setting? Now we might be getting somewhere. Readers prefer a world they can relate to. Ah, you say, but what about the million fathoms of fantasy and science fiction? Yet that’s not really a leap into the strange; all of it is populated by 21st century characters. Most readers of historical fiction just want a theme park Middle Ages, not the wild, hallucinatory, plague- and atrocity-ridden reality. It takes a bit of coaxing to get folks off the tour bus and backpacking along the more obscure trails through the literary jungle.

So is difficulty in fiction about straying from the readers’ comfort zones? The problem with comfortable writing – a likeable character, a cosy setting, a plot that ticks the boxes – is that it often makes for very bad books. And bad books are the most difficult to read. Listen to Papa:
‘For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.’
Doing something new doesn’t have to mean brain-blisteringly ergodic works like The House of Leaves or that French thing with no letter e. But now we’re steering in towards the genuine reefs on which many readers founder. Opening a book that is radically unlike anything we’ve seen before prompts the question, ‘How am I meant to approach this?’ The thousand-line poem at the start of Pale Fire, the stream of consciousness of Ulysses, the curlicued digressions of Tristram Shandy, the post-apocalypsese of Riddley Walker. Out of our familiar territory, with no map to guide us, what are we to do but panic?

Take a few deep breaths, though, and none of those books need be difficult. Resist the urge to flip to every note in the back; the author didn’t mean for any of it to be homework. Skip the critical introduction; it’s just an excuse for an academic to show off. Get stuck into the book itself. All experimental literature comes from a sense of exhilaration and (the same root as any fiction) a striving to connect. ‘Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.’ It doesn’t make sense? You can’t parse it? Well, the only problem there is thinking that you have to. Dive in. You can’t drown, and you might find the water’s lovely.

Nobody expects every work to break new experimental boundaries, but fresh and surprising isn’t too much to ask. Even then one encounters the complaint of the challenged reader – ‘I just want something to take to the beach.’ ‘I’m looking for a relaxing read.’ Geoffrey Hill addresses this point in a Paris Review interview:
‘One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. […] I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who […] argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement.’
Not to be flippant where Nazis are concerned, but ‘slogans of incitement’ perfectly sums up my impression of most pulp writing. Surely we can all agree that the unlovely, screenplay-shallow prose of a typical contemporary potboiler is very far from being a relaxing read? It glides away before the eyes but gives us nothing to hold onto. The world it presents leaves us on the outside looking in, munching the literary popcorn as the story washes over us and is gone.

It’s curious that, just as television drama is getting more complex, slippery about genre, aiming for ambiguity and interiority – as, in a sense, it’s becoming more literary – the medium of the written word, which is so much better suited for handling those elements, is often favouring a superficial style – declarative, depthless, all surface action. Are those authors trying to leave a calling card with Hollywood? Because – newsflash: if we leave aside the unscalable pinnacles of nine figure blockbusters, what the networks really want is intricacy, richness, innovation, unpredictability. You know, ‘difficult’ stuff.

What is the source of this myth that good books must be a struggle, that you can only relax with ‘trash’? A good book is more difficult than a bad one only in the sense that a relationship is more difficult than paying a prostitute. So why are so many people phobic about literary commitment? It must be an impression picked up at school that ossifies in later life into a Pavlovian insecurity about quality – in all the arts, not just in literature. A silly, muddle-headed submission that ‘fancy stuff’s too much for me’.

Why does this matter? Because for most people the phobia goes much deeper than choosing bad books over good ones. It is the reason that most people don’t read books at all. In perpetuating the fallacy that quality and entertainment value are a zero sum, in dismissing good writing as somehow elitist, we are setting a course towards a world where books are no longer read. Not even the bad ones.

Friday 12 June 2020

Gathering steam

The Fabled Lands CRPG that is currently in development at Prime Games is now on Steam. It's not going to be ready for a few months yet, but you can sign up so as not to miss any updates.

If these screenshots don't excite you, what can I say? You don't deserve to be an initiate of Nagil, or to have dinner with the worshippers of B-----r the Unspoken! Jamie and I have been playing it and it's everything we could have wished for in a Fabled Lands CRPG.

If the FL game sells well, hopefully Prime Games will follow up with a Blood Sword CRPG. But that could be a year or more off, so in the meantime take a look at Adam Samson's playthrough on YouTube:

Thursday 11 June 2020

The Machine Stops

I had no idea there were so many adaptations of E M Forster's 111-year-old science fiction novella The Machine Stops. These two student film versions, for example (above and below).

Those movies are both quite abbreviated, but at 44 minutes this radio dramatisation does justice to the story:

Or if you want the original Forster prose with no modern trimmings, try the audiobook:

Or you could go full purist (you just know that's my call, right?) and read the thing.

And why now? Because Forster proposes a world of extreme social distancing in which everybody communicates via the Machine (the Internet, basically). He thinks it would become a dystopian nightmare, requiring technological collapse to restore the soul of mankind. The reality is that, like most futures, it may not appeal to us Cro-Magnons but it will be the accepted way of life for those who grow up with it.

Not that we'd ever want to give up all in-person contact, sure, but there are upsides. Our roleplaying games have benefited because we now don’t have to travel across London to get to the game – and that's never a pleasant prospect on a weekday evening. So instead of two and a half hours’ gaming once a fortnight, we can now fit in three or four hours every week. And, pushed online by necessity, I'm hooking up with friends I sometimes don't see for years at a time. Even when the pandemic is really over (spoiler: that's probably not when politicians tell you it is) there are some good habits learned now that will be worth hanging onto.

"Only connect!" as Forster said. If only we could pop back in time and tell him about Skype.

Wednesday 10 June 2020

"I don't read Twitter. I only write on it."

A guest post by George Orwell today. This was originally written in February 1944:

When Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London, he occupied himself with writing a history of the world. He had finished the first volume and was at work on the second when there was a scuffle between some workmen beneath the window of his cell, and one of the men was killed. In spite of diligent enquiries, and in spite of the fact that he had actually seen the thing happen, Sir Walter was never able to discover what the quarrel was about; whereupon, so it is said -- and if the story is not true it certainly ought to be -- he burned what he had written and abandoned his project.

This story has come into my head I do not know how many times during the past ten years, but always with the reflection that Raleigh was probably wrong. Allowing for all the difficulties of research at that date, and the special difficulty of conducting research in prison, he could probably have produced a world history which had some resemblance to the real course of events. Up to a fairly recent date, the major events recorded in the history books probably happened. It is probably true that the battle of Hastings was fought in 1066, that Columbus discovered America, that Henry VIII had six wives, and so on. A certain degree of truthfulness was possible so long as it was admitted that a fact may be true even if you don't like it. Even as late as the last war it was possible for the Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance, to compile its articles on the various campaigns partly from German sources. Some of the facts -- the casualty figures, for instance -- were regarded as neutral and in substance accepted by everybody. No such thing would be possible now. A Nazi and a non-Nazi version of the present war would have no resemblance to one another, and which of them finally gets into the history books will be decided not by evidential methods but on the battlefield.

During the Spanish civil war I found myself feeling very strongly that a true history of this war never would or could be written. Accurate figures, objective accounts of what was happening, simply did not exist. And if I felt that even in 1937, when the Spanish Government was still in being, and the lies which the various Republican factions were telling about each other and about the enemy were relatively small ones, how does the case stand now? Even if Franco is overthrown, what kind of records will the future historian have to go upon? And if Franco or anyone at all resembling him remains in power, the history of the war will consist quite largely of "facts" which millions of people now living know to be lies. One of these "facts," for instance, is that there was a considerable Russian army in Spain. There exists the most abundant evidence that there was no such army. Yet if Franco remains in power, and if Fascism in general survives, that Russian army will go into the history books and future school children will believe in it. So for practical purposes the lie will have become truth.

This kind of thing is happening all the time. Out of the milions of instances which must be available, I will choose one which happens to be verifiable. During part of 1941 and 1942, when the Luftwaffe was busy in Russia, the German radio regaled its home audiences with stories of devestating air raids on London. Now, we are aware that those raids did not happen. But what use would our knowledge be if the Germans conquered Britain? For the purposes of a future historian, did those raids happen, or didn't they? The answer is: If Hitler survives, they happened, and if he falls they didn't happen. So with innumerable other events of the past ten or twenty years. Is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion a genuine document? Did Trotsky plot with the Nazis? How many German aeroplanes were shot down in the Battle of Britain? Does Europe welcome the New Order? In no case do you get one answer which is universally accepted because it is true: in each case you get a number of totally incompatible answers, one of which is finally adopted as the result of a physical struggle. History is written by the winners.

In the last analysis our only claim to victory is that if we win the war we shall tell fewer lies about it than our adversaries. The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits "atrocities" but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future. In spite of all the lying and self-righteousness that war encourages, I do not honestly think it can be said that that habit of mind is growing in Britain. Taking one thing with another, I should say that the press is slightly freer than it was before the war. I know out of my own experience that you can print things now which you couldn't print ten years ago. War resisters have probably been less maltreated in this war than in the last one, and the expression of unpopular opinion in public is certainly safer. There is some hope, therefore, that the liberal habit of mind, which thinks of truth as something outside yourself, something to be discovered, and not as something you can make up as you go along, will survive. But I still don't envy the future historian's job. Is it not a strange commentary on our time that even the casualties in the present war cannot be estimated within several millions?

* * *

Big, shameless lies have their beginnings in mealy-mouthed evasion of the kind exhibited by Marco Rubio and others here. Seventy-six years on, Orwell would hang his head in despair.

Friday 5 June 2020

London's burning

W Somerset Maugham said, "There is an impression abroad that everyone has it in him to write one book; but if by this is implied a good book the impression is false." Sixty years later, Christopher Hitchens put it more brutally: "Everyone has a book inside them, which is exactly where it should, I think, in most cases, remain."

In the last few years we've seen both statements proved many times over. Self-publishing and e-books have increased the number of titles being released each year from hundreds of thousands to many millions. It's a tidal wave of tat with just a few treasures in among the deluge, and those swept by so fast you could blink and miss them.

All the more reason, then, to rejoice when a writer of proven talent comes out with a new novel. And that's especially so when the novel is that writer's masterpiece, the one they've been honing for years, the work into which they've poured a lifetime of experience, craft and imagination.

Such a book is John Whitbourn's Babylondon. (Babylon and London, that is, as I'm sure you already realized.) How can I describe it in a way that will do justice to such a unique story? Imagine yourself in London in the summer of 1780. An angry rabble, enraged by laws intended to reduce discrimination, descend on the capital in an orgy of violence. A week of destruction and violence follow. These are the Gordon Riots. As one bystander put it as he watched public buildings go up in flames:
‘London offered on every side the picture of a city sacked and abandoned to a ferocious enemy.’
Yet this is unlike any modern populist howl of prejudice. Behind the scenes, malevolent forces are at work, exploiting the ignorant minds of the mob to bring about an infernal doom even more calamitous than a no-deal Brexit. From elsewhere in the multiverse comes a supernaturally competent, stylish and deliciously eccentric agent known as the Cavaliere. Imagine a refined, swordstick-wielding incarnation of the Doctor impeccably dressed for the century of lights, perhaps played by Tim Roth...

...with a touch of Marius Goring's performance as Conductor 71 in A Matter of Life and Death...

The Cavaliere soon gets himself an able companion to serve as his guide to this era, by the simple expedient of acquiring an orphan from the Foundling Hospital. (Since I'm doing the casting, Kate could be played by the young Billie Piper -- or Chloë Grace Moretz if she's up for attempting a Cockney accent.) Our two heroes will need all their wits and wiles, though, because ranged against them are a whole hierarchy of lethally adept opponents from this world and the planes beyond -- some of them armed with quantum weapons that even the Cavaliere has no defence against. ("This stuff shouldn't be here at all," warns the shadowy Guardsman as he equips his locally recruited minions.) And all this against the bloody backdrop of the riots as London is torn apart.

If I haven't piqued your interest by now then that's entirely my fault, because Babylondon is a modern classic that should appeal to every connoisseur of historical SF, multiverse adventure, and parallel worlds. John Whitbourn has been working on this novel since the late '90s and he's brought it to the quintessence of perfection. Grab your periwig and your poignard, and allons-y.

Thursday 4 June 2020

A whole heron's nest of untidy ambiguities!

When the waters became calm, Ys of the Ages, Ys the Beautiful, Ys of the Many Palaces, was sunk beneath the sea. In later times, when the light was right and the water clear, fishermen sometimes glimpsed the wonderful structures of marble, where nothing moved but schools of fish.

If you haven't read Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy then, really, what are you doing here? Vance was a huge influence on both fantasy fiction and fantasy roleplaying, the Lyonesse books are a delight worth returning to again and again, and in point of fact they'd make a great open-world gamebook in the Fabled Lands style.

I don't have the rights, so we're plumb out of luck as far as the gamebook goes, but Lawrence Whitaker of The Design Mechanism has just published a Lyonesse RPG based on Mythras, the current incarnation of the game formerly known as Runequest. If the video whets your appetite, you can buy it on DriveThruRPG. (Full disclosure: I was one of the writing team and penned the sections on Ys and the Ska. But I'd be recommending it anyway, because it's Vance.)

The new RPG offers an exhaustive (500-page) guide to the world, but what if Mythras/RQ isn't your beaker of the blushful? Once you're read the Lyonesse books you'll no doubt have your own take on how to run it. There was another set of roleplaying rules published in 1999 by Men in Cheese, If you want to focus on the activities of sorcerers and their associates, Lyonesse would be a great fit with Ars Magica, I'd love to see a Powered By The Apocalypse version, and you might even use Dragon Warriors. Whatever your favourite system, just dive in. It's a world that is guaranteed to catalyze your creativity.

'I could cite other such relics. Those which are not lost are revered and guarded with care. They might be difficult to obtain.’

Queen Sollace spoke decisively: ‘No good thing comes without hardship. That is the lesson of life!’

‘How true,’ intoned Father Umphred. ‘Your Highness has succinctly clarified a whole heron’s nest of untidy ambiguities.’

Wednesday 3 June 2020

Ella è quanto de ben pò far natura

Edizioni Librarsi have announced the third book in the Blood Sword series, L'Artiglio del Demone. And how about that cover art? I wish the books could have gone out with such magnificent cover paintings back in the day. It almost makes me want to write the whole saga up as a Jewelspider adventure -- and then I could finally cap it all with the finale it deserves. Well, once I've got the Jewelspider rules published, and Tetsubo, and Abraxas, and Λ, it'll be the very next thing on the list.