Some Quick Reviews Part 1: Books

I’ve recently finished a good chunk of media, and since there wasn’t one thing that really stood out to me I figured I’d just give some simple opinions without going too in-depth. I’m going to split these posts up into the different media. Today we’ll be focusing on three books I’ve read.

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Moby Dick Rehearsed by Orson Welles, adapted from the novel by Herman Melville

I’ve never read Moby Dick, I’ve always wanted to but I haven’t gotten myself a copy yet. Nonetheless, I’ve always been intrigued by the novel. Hearing that legendary filmmaker (and before that, theatermaker) Orson Welles made a dramatic adaptation I figured that the play would be worth checking out.

I was right.

Moby Dick Rehearsed reminds me of Shakespeare at its best. Obviously Melville’s original novel has been compared to Shakespeare as well, but the play’s use of blank verse and minimal stage directions further the comparison. The epicness of the story is remarkably maintained within the 76 pages of the script. During the ending sequence where they actually encounter Moby Dick I could feel my heart racing as I read the lines. I know that the adaptation (obviously) skipping a lot, but it still manages to contain a lot of the philosophical commentary attributed to the novel. I can’t help but feel like most attempts to adapt Moby Dick onto the stage these days would skip some of the great scenes used in this version.

I would highly recommend this play to anyone who likes the original, or anyone who just likes theater that thinks on a great scale.


 

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber

This book originally showed up on my Amazon “recommended for you” list. It seemed somewhat interesting and was supposed to be well-written, so I thought I’d give it a try. I suspected from the beginning that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with David Graeber’s arguments, but I figured it would be a book worth thinking about.

I enjoyed this book, but I feel that my suspicions were right. Graeber is an entertaining writer, but as an argumentative text I take some issue with Utopia of Rules. While Graeber does use a fair amount of statistical and academic sources, he also uses a lot of anecdotes and hand-waves for his arguments. Saying “as we all know” as a counter-argument does not make your point right. His deconstructions of media definitely have some interesting arguments, but I think that some of his points have been made by other media studies experts (I can’t point to any specific resources though, so maybe his arguments seem too broad to me).

The book does admit that it is intended to provoke conversation about trying to “find a way to talk about what it is we actually object to in this [bureaucracy’s] process, to speak honestly about the violence it entails, but at the same time, to understand what is appealing about it…” rather than  be a real manifesto or alternative. If the reader can keep this mind, then it really is a book that inspires ideas and discussion, but I wouldn’t claim that it’s a book with a really iron-clad argument.


Imaginary Cities by Darren Anderson

I got this book for a couple reasons. One of my friends had directed me towards the author’s twitter feed, and around the same time I started an Urban Studies course.

Imaginary Cities doesn’t really pretend to be a work with an argument, it proudly wears the label “creative non-fiction” and intends to be as creative as possible while still being non-fiction. Like its poetic inspiration Invisible CitiesAnderson’s book weaves a long and winding path through real history to take a look at cities that never existed (or the imaginary cities that existed on top of our so-called “real” cities). The book talks about everything from the Tower of Babel, to steampunk, to Philip K. Dick, pontificating about different ideas with a slew of great quotes and poetic observations.

While some will probably find the book too broad, or perhaps a bit tedious because of its somewhat poetic structure, I personally found it very fun, very entertaining, and very thought provoking. This book knows what it is and is entirely happy to forsake other, safer roles. Very original, and very interesting.


That’s it for now. Next, I’m going to look at some movies and Television shows.

Cheers,

-PH

New Music – “The Notebook EP 1”

I don’t talk about it much here, but I play a fair amount of instruments and, from time to time, I like to try and record some music with those instruments. Today I released an EP of six new songs, so it seemed appropriate to mention it.

For those of you interested in checking out (or perhaps even downloading!)  my music, you can find my Bandcamp by using the player below.

I’m hoping to keep releasing music over the summer. My goal is to have two more EPs out before school starts again.

Anyway, that’s all for now.  Thank you for listening, and feel free to tell me what you think.

Cheers,

-PH

 

Other, Self, and the Fictitious Identity

Unknown_engraver_-_Humani_Victus_Instrumenta_-_Ars_Coquinaria_-_WGA23954
Humani Victus Instrumenta,
       or The Instruments of Human Sustenance.  Also the heading image for the wikipedia series on Cyborgs

One of the things that fascinates me the most within the realm of Fantasy and Sci-fi is the presentation of morality systems with the concept of the “other.” Much has been written about otherness, and what I’m writing here is in no way going to be a comprehensive review of this very broad, heavily debated topic, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I want to share some of my thoughts.

Conceptually, the Other is simply that which is not the Self. In the broadest terms this is everything that surrounds us without being us. I am Me, and you are You. In this way, almost everything can be an other. Of course, while most people see themselves as individuals, we also see ourselves as part of communities, nationalities, and cultures. In this way the “We” can be the self as well as the “I.” The average person doesn’t go about their day thinking of every person, animal, and object they encounter as an object of Otherness. A person builds their identity out of the people they are surrounded by, by the ideologies they accept, and by objects that comfort them. These things build up a sense of the self, but not all things can be justified to fit in the world of the “self,” things will have opposites and oppositions – these necessitate the birth of the Other. The Other is often categorized as the mysterious, the dangerous, and the misguided

Occasionally the Other can be something desirable – or at least it can be fetishized – but in these cases the Other is usually tied somehow to the existence of the Self, if often in the broadest terms. Consider that God (in the Christian sense) is usually portrayed as being all-powerful and beyond human comprehension, nonetheless we are all shaped in God’s image and we can all strive to feel the love of God. God, then, could be called a Utopian Other – the Other of the perfect which we do not have but desire. It is an Other that is present in every human, and therefore it doesn’t seem to be an other at all. Naturally we never consider the thought that “The creator wanted to look away form himself; so he created the world.” (The Portable Nietzsche,Thus Spoke Zarathustra: First Part, 143), just as we create the Other to distance ourselves from our sins.

All presentations of Self and Other form problematic dichotomies: Me vs. You, Us vs. Them, God vs. Devil, Good vs. Evil. If the Other is undesirable, then the self is good. Ironically, the Other is almost certainly another Self, and if both Selves see only Others, then the dichotomy will be strengthened by mutual suspicion and fear:

All sins are hoisted by the Other, a role that requires reappointment periodically. They are the dystopia so we must be the utopia. It can be a mutually beneficial relationship for those it benefits.” (Imaginary Cities, 444)

The consequences are reminiscent of the ever-warring factions of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia in 1984, whose mutual hatred only furthers their alikeness.

Fantasy and Science Fiction, being the playgrounds of speculation, have a long history of utilizing the Self-Other dichotomy. Some works have supported it, some have subverted it, some have simply sought to question it.

Fantasy has, more often than not, utilized the other as the villain. Consider the classic Tolkien creation of the Orc. Orcs are inherently ugly, cruel, ignorant, and hateful. They are creatures that suffer, that can create no beauty, and are inherently “savage.” The Black Speech (not explicitly an Orcish language, but one with ties to the Orcs) is supposed to be harsh and unpleasant and is even described as accursed. The Orcs represent a specific idea of evil. Tolkien, ever the scholar, based his concepts of the Orcs off of other mythologies and folklore – in particular the various types of Goblins that exist – but this only further identifies the Orcs as a representation of a very real Otherness that is present in Western culture. It is interesting to note that the Orcish prototype of Grendel from Beowulf is described as a child of Cain, a Biblical character that has come to represent the internalized Other of the Freudian Id and Jungian Shadow. (It is also an interesting coincidence that the Biblical “curse” of “mark” of Cain has been utilized as a tool of racial subjugation through the assumption that the mark was black skin, suggesting to White slave owners that people of Color had been cursed by God for the acts of the archetypal murderer Cain). The fact that the Orc has survived in the Western psyche through many different iterations only furthers the implications of what they represent. This isn’t to say that such assumptions haven’t been turned on their heads – orcs in World of Warcraft, D&D, and the Supermutants of New Vegas have been portrayed as intelligent, wise, and cultured to different degrees, but there’s usually still a bitter taste of “barbarianism” attached to their portrayal.

In the RPG system of Burning Wheel, a system that prides itself for its mechanical implementation of roleplaying, the Orcs are described thusly:

Twisted, tortured, and fulgent with hate, these cousins of the Elves exist in a culture that is a cruel mockery of civilization – one of fear and brutality, a society of the whip.” (The Burning Wheel Gold Edition, 235)

Things are further complicated by the implementation of the Hatred mechanic where

If an Orc’s Hatred should ever reach exponent 10, he snaps. He either commits suicide (in an orgy of bloodletting) or retreats into catatonia.” (The Burning Wheel Gold Edition, 241)

While there’s an implication of harmful cultural practices that effect the Orcish worldview, there’s an even greater suggestion that Orcs are “bad” by nature. Even though the book tries to make Orcs more sympathetic by pointing out

These Orcs are not mindless, savage brutes hell-bent on flexing their muscles while screaming gibberish. Burning Wheel Orcs are a little more complex. First, they are cowards. Ninety percent of the Orcs created in these life paths are going to have an incredibly high hesitation, which means they flinch from pain and run from danger… Second, these Orcs have a culture firmly embedded in their life paths. Every time you make an Orc, you are birthing the product of a brutal, callous society, beholden to hatred and focused on unreasoning revenge…

and also suggests that it is entirely possible to portray orcs differently

I’ve seen some inspiring examples where Orcs are part of a tapestry of civilized cultures in a game world, no better or worse off than any of their brethren. If that’s your desire simply shake the Tolkien out of your head and think “wiry, smart, tough bastards,” and you should be fine…

there’s still the suggestion of a primal evil in the fact that players are still recommended to

Keep the Hatred, though. It’s just too fun not to play with.” (The Burning Wheel Gold Edition, 250)

If the goal is to play a complex character, why is Hatred necessary to play an Orc? Even if Hatred does add a personal conflict, it still carries strange implications to the nature of Orcs as creatures and the portrayal of morality within the game’s rules.

Games that use morality as part of their rule set are inherently problematic because they will almost always utilize the Self/Other problem. The most prominent example is, perhaps, the Light Side/Dark Side meter of the Knights of the Old Republic. Games like Fallout (and KOTOR II) have made an effort to question these mechanics, but there’s still the implication of a true “good” and true “evil” within the game worlds. The morality/ethics graph of Dungeons & Dragons also makes clear presumptions about the existence of good and evil as tangible substances within the game world, but at least D&D is broad enough and flexible enough to allow (and sometimes encourage) these rules be changed and subverted.

Science Fiction has generally had a better reputation regarding the Other, perhaps because Sci-Fi is based on the possibilities of the Future where Fantasy is so often built of the systems and assumptions of the past:

Science fiction often smooths the introduction of new technologies by exploring their meaning, ethics, sanguine visions, and dystopian possibilities in advance of their existence.” (Polystate)

In Science Fiction the Other is just as often a threat as it is a savior – the Creature from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (considered by many to be the first science fiction novel) is at once the unrecognizable Other, and the reflection of the human. For every story of alien invasion (War of the Worlds, Independence Day) there is one of alien redemption (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Stranger in a Strange Land), and, of course, there are those where humans become more than human (Lilith’s Brood, Dune, Altered Carbon). In futures like Mass Effect we are presented with various aliens that represent possibilities for a better humanity, as well as creatures that represent the completely (often malevolent) “non-human.” Even in the posthuman game Eclipse Phase – a game which actively eschews embodiment of gender, race, and species in favor of an identity of fluid consciousness – there exists a “big bad” in the form of the antagonistic TITAN AIs. Of course, while the Universe must, by necessity, contain elements that human consciousness cannot comprehend, it seems odd that they are always antagonistic, repulsive, and capable of destroying humanity. These incomprehensible beasties of cosmic destruction, whether a rogue AI or some kind of slumbering God, usually draw inspiration from the work of H.P. Lovecraft. But so many are quick to overlook the discriminatory implications that Lovecraft’s creations carry:

the fears that generated Lovecraft’s stories and opinions were precisely those of the white, middle ‐ class, heterosexual, Protestant – descended males who were most threatened by the shifting power relationships and values of the modern world.” (The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, xiii)

The TITANS of Eclipse Phase may be based on the more rational fear of scientific advancement, but we shouldn’t forget that the fear of the Other is a fear of ourselves, and that fear itself can be more dangerous than the Other.

One of the problems that we face in the modern world is that societies will increasingly diversify. While this is, on the whole, a good thing, the more we encounter differences the more we will feel threatened in the present. The abundance of personal choice – choice of ownership, choice of religion, choice of identity – further advances diversity, and also provokes the feelings of fear that change brings. As unpleasant as it is for the left to admit, when a society is full of people who are alike”internal costs of organization may be substantively reduced,” (Polystate) which means less internal strife, even if homogeneity slows down political and technological progress. The apparent success of tribalism isn’t necessarily that they are more spiritual or have a more complete worldview, it’s that tribes live as primarily homogeneous units, and opposing tribes are a convenient “other” to project problems onto.

Living in a society where choice  (that is, personal liberty) is not just a necessity, but a goal, it becomes problematic when the number of “Selves” and “Others” expands with the inclusion of every new choice. Often times the solution is presented as a “synthesis.” The idea of the inclusive community, the bringing together of the Self and Other into and Us. This idea, while appealing, isn’t really so much of a solution as an inevitability. If oppositions exist, and they always do, they will eventually destroy themselves by combining. This creates a new “self” but it creates new “others” as well. Perhaps, instead of looking at the broad, various Selves and Others that exists in all communities, we should look at ourselves.

People are made of choices. We grow up through the actions we perform, the experiences those create, and the consequences that follow. One of the major problems – at least in the American psyche – is that our actions are ours alone, that we have conscious control over our identities. This isn’t really the case. We make choices, yes, and these choices build us, but there are infinite outside influences that control the choices that are presented to us. We need to shed the skin of choice to look into who we really are. Is being Patrick  determined by the mere choices and experiences of my life? I don’t think so. Patrick  isn’t a gender, Patrick  isn’t an age, Patrick  isn’t an action. As Donna Haraway wrote in her Feminist Cyborg Manifesto:

Consciousness of exclusion through naming is acute. Identities seem contradictory, partial, and strategic. With the hard-won recognition of their social and historical constitution, gender, race, and class cannot provide the basis for belief in ‘essential’ unity. There is nothing about teeing ‘female’ that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices.

Gender isn’t the only false identity. The only identity you can have is yourself. We must erase the superficiality we bind to ourselves to see the innocent, true “being” beneath. We must become children again:

Why must the preying lion still become a child? The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled of creation, my brothers, a sacred ‘Yes.’” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra: First Part, 139)

We are the culmination of all things around us, but we are not defined by each of these elements, none of them exist in a vacuum. When the individual examines all of the Otherness that surrounds them, they should learn to see that it is everything. We are all Others because we are all selves. We carry our own sins and choices within us, we isolate and connect ourselves. We are aliens and humans and cyborgs and orcs. We are identities, monstrous identities, alone as ourselves.

 

RPG Design Journal #5: Starting a City…

Moreso than any other environment (with the possible exception of the dungeon) the city dominates all other locales as the prime spot to begin adventures. Whether the players meet in a seedy tavern, the hall of some nobleman, or outside the main gates, the city offers more possibilities – and therefore more adventure – than any other realm of the fantastic.

Of course, it is this variety that makes such cities so difficult to design. A city in an imaginary world is a city with an imaginary history, imaginary inhabitants, imaginary lives. The city is not built with the luxury of being new. Most cities begin with limited planning – settlers put their abodes wherever seems most convenient, though some may plan for the sake of putting up walls and fortresses. As populations increase, and engineers and architects move in, cities become a patchwork of impromptu and premeditated topographies.

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The 1859 map depicting Ildefons Cerdá’s plans for Barcelona. Note the difference between the labyrinthine buildings of the  Old Town (in black) and the straight avenues of Cerdá’s extension.

For our world we will create the first settlement in the New Lands. We know that the New Lands are North of the Empire, and is across the ocean; naturally, it would make sense for the first Imperial settlement to be a port city. It would also make sense for it to have many defensive fortifications because of the Migrations. Because the first migration occurred thirty years after the founding of Saint Maluns, this might be an event that leads to division’s in the city’s layout. The docks would still grow, but inland parts of the city would develop more like a fortress town. This could also signify class differences: the poor would be more likely to live outside the city walls near the docks, the middle classes live inside the walls of the city, the upper classes inhabit an inner wall – really, a keep from medieval  cities – to be safe, not only from the migrations, but from the commons.

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A map for Saint Maluns. Note the different areas that are outlined by the walls and the streets. The docks are kept out by the town walls, the nobility is cloistered in the upper-left corner of the town.

The name of the city (“Saint Maluns”) is also intended to help evoke the tone of the game world. It is reminiscent of the days of Papal Hegemony, the mixing of Religious Rule and Imperial Might. However, the setting’s (anachronstic) time period also suggests that this power may be falling apart. The Renaissance, the Baroque Era, and the Enlightenment all slowly picked apart these superpowers through schisms, technological advancements, and the rise of skepticism. Saint Maluns is a city that is caught in numerous struggles. The city’s aristocracy wants to maintain traditional power structures, the military wants to keep the city (and all of the colonies) in the palm of the Empire, anarchists and rebels want independence, criminals want a profit. In this town we can enact any number of conflicts on a (relatively) small scale; players can find factions to align with or destroy.

Let’s look at some of the factions that will inhabit this city:

Firs off we’ll look at the two political ideologies as embodied by the nobility and the rebels:

The Nobility: The Nobility of Saint Maluns is a hive of privilege, snobbery, and political intrigue. Most of the nobles have very little power compared to the courts of the Imperial Homeland, and try to make up for their political inadequacy through fanciful façades and by enacting their control over the city. The city (and the colony of Curelsed) is officially ruled by Duke Kalsius, who was sent by the Emperor himself to help suppress any dissent. Kalsius is less concerned with the squabbling of the local nobles and is eager to imprison the anarchists and insurgents that he is sure walk the city’s streets. Despite the elitism of the patricians, the Empire does offer the city’s inhabitants plenty of goods and military protection. Many of the inhabitants are content to live under the gaze of the Emperor, even if they don’t much care for the local aristocrats.

The Rebels: The “rebels” of Saint Maluns are not so much a unified force as a political ideology shared by some of the city’s inhabitants. Since Saint Maluns is so closely tied (economically, geographically, and politically) to the Empire there are fewer rebel cells compared to some of the other cities further inland.

Another couple themes of this world are Enlightenment vs. Romanticism and Harmony vs. Discipline. Inspired by the magicians of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as well as the rivalry of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Liebniz (especially as portrayed in Neil Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle) I created two groups of magic-users with different philosophies.

The Cabal: An organization of magicians run by an individual known as The Artist. The Cabal believes that magic is powered by emotion and creativity; they mainly focus their energies on the arts, honing their magic through their creations. The Cabal’s headquarters is akin to a bohemian retreat – a cross between a club and Andy Warhol’s Factory – where magicians collaborate, debate, brag, and indulge in hedonistic pleasures.

The Magickal Society: An organization of magicians run by The Scientist. The Magickal Society believes that magic obeys certain natural laws that mortals cannot break. The Society uses a process (similar to the Scientific Method) to determine and catalogue magical discoveries. They work out of The Scientist’s Academy, an educational institution dedicated to the magical and scientific disciplines.

There are also a few other organizations that have their own conflicts, or serve as neutral parties.

Criminals: Saint Maluns is a port town in a land of monsters, its bound to attract some sketchy individuals. There are numerous small gangs and individual criminals, but everybody knows that the real king of the city’s underworld is Waldamar the Pleaser. Waldamar’s criminal network deals in everything from drugs, to magic, to slaves. Duke Kalsius sees Waldamar as his foremost adversary in his war to control Saint Maluns. Waldamar doesn’t seem too worried, so long as the profits keep rolling in.

Rangers: A paramilitary force shared among the colonies, the Rangers were formed after the first migration to protect the colonies from monsters. While Knights represent the force and morals of the Empire and civilization, the Rangers serve as the warriors of the wilderness. Simultaneously monster hunters, soldiers, and law enforcement, the Rangers serve as the penultimate guardian of the frontier. Saint Maluns doesn’t have many active Rangers – most are further North, near the Forest – but there is a Ranger’s Office where young hopefuls can sign up to join the ranks.

The Spirian Church: The official church of the Telurian Empire. The Spirian Church has strong ties to the Imperial military through their Order of Myr, which hosts knights and Paladins. These holy warriors serve the will of the Gods and the Emperor, which sometimes leads to conflicts when the Church and the State’s orders conflict.

The Imperial Military: Saint Maluns has its own military base for colonial soldiers, but sometimes the Imperial Mainland sends in troops directly. Recently, the Empire has been sending a great number of troops lead by the war hero Sir Arran, but nobody in the city (not even Duke Kalsius) knows what their mission is.

These different factions offer plenty of plot hooks; some of which are explicit, some of which can be built upon out of these descriptions. There is also the possibility for sub-factions to exist within these groups, providing additional opportunities for characters who join organizations. As we continue to build this city we can consider the influence of these organizations to determine how Saint Maluns has developed.

Next time we’ll look at specific locations within the city that players can visit.

Cheers,

-PH