Friday, June 30, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #4: How to Make a Pantheon

Making a pantheon is something that almost every fantasy writer does. It's right up there with making a cutting board in woodworking shop or painting a landscape.

The easy part of making a pantheon is creating lists. The hard part of making a pantheon is figuring out what it all means.

Copying a Pantheon

The easiest method of creating a pantheon is by starting with something that you know. Copying works. Somebody else has already done the hard thinking for you. We'll start with the Greek gods. We have the leader (sky), the sea, the underworld, the smith, love, the hearth, and so on. These are all social and physical phenomena that people found important. These aspects of religion cover the most important parts of life and civilization for the Greeks. Note what's important.

Most people rename their gods, but you don't have to rename them if you don't want to. They'll stay purer if you keep the Greek names, but drift of on their own directions if you given them different names. Once you rename the, you'll find that each god or deity increasingly takes on a life of their own.

Now that you have your list, change something. Change anything.
  • Increase or decrease the status of a god.
  • Change the leader.
  • Combine two gods.
  • Eliminate a god.
  • Add a new god.
Once you've changed something, ask yourself, "What does this mean? How would society react to this?"

For example, let's combine Poseidon with Aphrodite. The goddess of Love is now the goddess of the sea and the most powerful of the gods. Did Poseidon die? Did he never exist? What does this combination say about the nature of love?

We can explain this in a little story. When Poseidon tried to rape Hera, she showed her terrible powers and proved herself more powerful than Poseidon. Don't mess with Hera. Having risen from the sea, Aphrodite was best situated to replace him. Aphrodite's love is like the sea, tempestuous and unpredictable. Historically, Hera had issues with Aphrodite. The sea now sits in opposition to the hearth.

Now, let's make Hephaestus the King of the Gods. What does that say about what's important? It tell us that machining and craft skills are now the highest virtues of the society.

The most difficult question of all to answer is, "What does mean?" To answer, that, you write a book. Your book becomes the means by which you explore the nature of these proposed relationships.

Eliminating gods can prove equally as fun. What does it mean if the Greeks had never recognized Zeus and Poseidon as gods? Who would be the chief god be? What hole would it leave in both religion and society?

Tacking on extra ideas to gods helps makes a god your own. Hephaestus is not only the King of the Gods, he's the Lord of NASCAR racing. In fact, the NASCAR racing season is a multi-city festival in honor of Hephaestus.

That idea suggests another way to vary your religion: change the time and place of the people who have the religion. We are used to worshipers of the Greek pantheon being in ancient Greece, but how would that religion look and act in Tsaris Russia? The American revolution? In a far-future military SF?

Originating Your Own Pantheon

Originating your own pantheon allows you to go even further afield. What's important to your fictional society? The answer here determine who the gods are in a pantheon.

If we look at elves and ask about their gods, we would find trees, architecture, bows, art, music, harmony, and light as important elements of their society. Using that as inspiration, we could create a god for each of these endeavors. Some of these ideas we could combine together, while others we might split apart into more detailed deities, either as distinct approaches to ideas or as ideas clustered together as a subgroup of gods. The Medicinals could be a set of minor goddesses who created plants to help the elves.

Don't feel that you need to detail the entire pantheon. As you write, you'll come up with more ideas, realizing that you have more to add more in. Do you create new gods for these new ideas or do you tack them onto the existing gods? Each direction has implications.

The hard work of creating a pantheon is thinking about the people who worship those gods. Religion isn't a one-way street. Man creates religion, then religion creates man. Once you accept something as true, then sooner or later, your characters must live as if that thing is true. (That doesn't keep people from being hypocrites.) Given a truth, society will live into that truth.

Because these gods are real, what influence to they impart onto their societies? If you accept that Light is the greatest and holiest of gods, what does that mean for the society that worships them? There's a saying, "As in heaven, so on earth." There should be some correspondence in organization between the gods and their people. The gods should embody the best idea of how society should be run as conceived of by that society. In this example, the elves are egalitarian, so they don't have a ruler, they sit on council until they reach a decision on united action. However, in times of crisis, the gods elect a War Leader to manage pressing affairs.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Freedom's Choice (1997)

Freedom's Choice (1997) by Anne McCaffrey is about 295 pages too long. Every single word is utterly forgettable. Every conversation is dull. The tome reeks of pointlessness basted in apathy. How a writer of McCaffrey's statue could forget to use plot, pacing, and other basic literary conventions is beyond me. Emotionally, the book is a straight line, never deviating from its steady state. You never doubt anything because the books essentially goes nowhere. Yes, stuff happens, but you don't care. This book progresses in the same way that wandering far enough in any direction feels like you've progressed. She phoned this thing in.

How did this even get published?

Any reasonable writer could have told this tale in one quarter of the words, and had a greater impact on the reader. The work is no better than a novella tossed into a puffed rice maker, only bigger because it contained more air.

If you don't mind drinking on the beach as you turn off your brain, you'll find this an entertaining book. Any drunk can follow the lacadasical plot, and the story repeatedly tells you information, so you don't have to worry about forgetting anything.

I'm not even going to stand here and justify myself. That would be more than this book deserves.

What galls me most is that it isn't a one star book. I'd have far more fun with a truly bad book. No, this is a two-star turkey perfect for the days when you're on heavy meds.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #3: Basic Approaches Towards Religion

We can broadly categorize religion into the following categories, any or all of which may apply in any fantasy world.
  • Religion is literally real.
  • Religion is based on a lie.
  • Religion is discovered to be true.
  • Religion cannot be either proved or disproved.
  • Religion is flavor text.
  • Nobody talks about religion.

Religion Is Real

In a fantasy world where the gods are real, the gods are real. Their existence is incontrovertible to everyone except the crazies. The impact of this truth cannot be understated. If the gods are real, then your relationship and your society’s relationship with them matters, their words matter, their favoritism matters, and their promises matter. They are the literal powers that drive and shape the world, so you and your society wants to stay on their good side.

Because your relationship with the divine matters, people who specialize in interacting with the divine, at every level, matter as well. Priests, clerics, shamans, monks, and other holy people use their expertise for the good of society. They help keep the relationships between god and man working smoothly. Society trusts and values these people, and if they abuse that trust, the welfare of the entire community can be at stake.

Because the gods are real, religious laws matter far more than mortal laws. While mortals can change their local laws, they cannot change divine law. To trespass against divine law risks the anger of the gods themselves. They may misinterpret a trespass against them as the carelessness or faithlessness of the community. Because of this, any breakers of divine law must be dealt with quickly and decisively, so that the gods know that the community remains obedient and respectful.

In a world where gods are certain and incontrovertible, faith takes on a new meaning. There’s no need for belief in the gods because the gods are real. What’s more important is how you act towards them, and how well you keep their interests in mind.

This doesn’t mean that everyone knows everything about the gods, or spirituality, or the divine. Who can truly know the gods? Nor does this mean that all worship of the divine is identical, or even centralized. Different peoples have different experiences over time, so their understanding of identical gods can differ, each forming its own valid tradition.

Religion Is Based On A Lie

In many fantasy story, religion holds great sway over people. Over the course of the story, the protagonist discovers that the religion is based on lies and manipulation. Those in power supporting different goals than those that they tell the people. The revelation of this duplicity releases the protagonists, setting them them free so that they can to turn against the system, setting them on a path counter to their own previous ideals.

However, even though the facts of the religion may be proven false, the protagonists still find great truths in the ideals of the religion rather than in obedience to its power. While they may abandon their religion’s worldly leaders, they re-embrace the spirit of their previous religion, its true intention, their religious purity allowing them to rise to greater things.

Religion Is Discovered To Be True

Stories are whispered between people. Traditions are kept. The ideas of a religion may be ridiculed or disproved. The religion may even be illegal. But somewhere along the line, the protagonist learns the truth, that all those stories are real, and if they want to restore to the world to what it should be, then they must embrace the religion that once was, using its power and its truth to overthrow the false.

This discovery of religion may happen early in a story, setting the hero in motion, or it may be discovered late, its discovery changing the direction of story, and providing the rationale for the hero changing sides.

Religion Cannot Be Proved or Disproved

The religion of reality is one where divinity cannot be proven or disproved. Faith, the belief in a religion, is the foundation of all religious groups. Although some people may be obsessed with finding proof, and many others happy without it. In general, proof is impossible to come by.

Uncertain religion works well where they gray area between right and wrong is an important topic of the work. The characters must wade through messy morality to arrive at an answer, but that morality always comes with a price, and there’s nobody at the end to tell you that you did the right thing.

Because religion is uncertain, adherence to religion is variable, ranging from the devout believer to the showy opportunist, from hypocrite to the  morally bankrupt. Each approaches religion by their own perceptions, their own goals, their own biases. Some don’t believe while others are zealots. Some follow the crowd. Others explore. The motivations and personalities of each person determines how they relate to the divine.

Religion As Flavor Text

In many books, religion exists, adding to the lore of a world, but in practical terms. Behavior of the characters may be shaped or changed by nebulous ideas of good and evil, but these don’t necessarily have great depth. When religion is flavor text, it exists to give the world a specific feel rather than to affect how the characters act or react, standing as set dressing rather than script.

Being flavor text does not have to diminish religion. As flavor text, religion can have a profound effect on your work. It's like putting in a colored light, the hue changing the feel of everything that happens in and around it. The effect may be subtle or overwhelming, but its always there coloring everything.

Nobody Talks About Religion

Religion isn’t right for all books. Sometimes it just gets in the way. Sometimes it not right for the market. Sometimes, you don’t care. Countless books have been written where religion is either minimally present or not present at all. In all such cases, it’s best to just avoid mention religion at all, ignoring its possible presence.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #2: What is Religion?

What is religion? 

Perhaps if I had a full semester, post-grad class, I could define the term "religion." The best that I can say is that it’s complicated. It’s very complicated. This complication arises from two main sources: no two cultures define religion exactly alike, and religion encompasses all of what makes us human, which goes past unreasonably broad and dives straight into incomprehensible.

Religion is an aspect of culture. Its something that people learn rather than something that people are born with. While it's an identifiable aspect of culture, it's not an easily separable aspect of culture. All aspects of a culture get some religion in them and religion gets all other aspects of the culture. At our most primitive, the earliest humans made no distinction between religion, law, history, and daily life. These were entwined with each other, undifferentiated, inseparable, and self-apparent. Every action had some possibility to interact with the spiritual world, and so every action had some element of religiosity. One simply could not exist outside the spiritual world any more than one could exist flying off the ground.

What united such people is their narrative about what those magical-spiritual were, what they meant, and how best to interact with them safely. So at a minimum, a religion is a communal set of beliefs for making sense of the world and for understanding our place in it.

Community is at the heart of religion. One person does not constitute a religion. The elements of religion are communicable between one person and the next, and between one generation and the next. That makes a religion learnable. A religion may be so complex that no one person knows everything, but as a community, the sum of their knowledge will constitute the sum of their religion.

The community of a religion may be small, such as a single town or village, large, such as an Imperial State Cult, dispersed, with beliefs holding them in common, or centralized, with beliefs managed by experts.

There’s also a few things that religion is not.

Religion is not a literal system. When treated as a literal system, religion is reduced to a machine, removing the very humanity that makes it religion. A system implies that a religion is self-consistent and coherent. Because religion contains so much humanity, who are not consistent and who are far from coherent, which encompasses human cultures which are far from systematic, which contains within itself various arguments and conflicts, and which utterly fails at producing a predictable result, reducing religion to a system does a disservice to the institution. Not once in my studies of a religion has any significant scholar demonstrated that a religion is a system.

In contrast, people inside the religion may attempt to use it as a system, but that doesn’t make religion a system.

Wikipedia contains this quote about systems: “A cultural system may be defined as the interaction of different elements of culture. While a cultural system is quite different from a social system, sometimes both systems together are referred to as a "sociocultural system". A major concern of the social sciences is the problem of order.” [1] For our purposes, religion makes sense as a component of a sociocultural system rather than a system by itself.

What is religion in a fantasy context?

 Religion in the context of a fantasy novel is whatever the writer wants or needs religion to be. It’s a world building element that offers a glimpse into characters or their societies that might not otherwise be apparent, provides character motivations that differ from our own, creates narrative opportunities for readers to enjoy, and supports plots.

In short, religion is a tool for the author.

Because religion is a tool, it can be used in any way, or any combination of ways, inside a work of fiction. Religion becomes a vast and flexible omni-tool. Used well, religion enhances a work, adding color, depth, complexity, and humanity to the work, but used poorly, detracts from the work, adding unnecessary and distracting words to a story.

Because religion can be used so broadly, any discussion of its use must be equally as broad. I doubt that there is any work out there that could possibly encompass the use of religion in every aspect. At best, the use of religion in fantasy can be a survey work, focusing either on widely applicable uses, or focusing on particular areas of use, such as the creation of a pantheon. I will be using a broad approach, touching on many areas, rather than go down the more complicated, and frankly more challenging route of examining any single topic in significant detail.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Freedom's Landing (1995)

Freedom's Landing (1995) by Anne McCaffey is an SF beach read. Give yourself a large supply of numerous munchies and enough alcohol to make anything entertaining, and you too will be entertained. Skip the alcohol, and you'll have to face the unavoidable fact that this book has almost no plot, the characters are mostly forgettable, it centers around a romance with zero spark, and the science part tops out at "solar power." Aside from that, it's a well written beach read, with a perky heroine, quippy dialog, and copious fluff. Subtract sobriety, and there's real fun to be had here.

Unwilling colonists here have been dumped on an alien planet for being uppity humans. Survive or die is the name of the game, but because the book is fluffy, the dying part isn't that bad (it only happens to nameless characters) while the survival part isn't that hard.

If the plot had actually gone somewhere, rather than saunter around, this book would have satisfied me better. As it stands, this book feels like it has a beginning, a middle, and then more middle. What there is of an end feels rather tacked on. I don't mind multi-part books, but even those feel like they're building or heading towards something. This book didn't feel like it was building or heading towards anything.

This work exists in McCaffrey's well run future, where internal fighting and politics rarely happen. Either everyone's in line or there's a crisis, and in this book, everyone gets in line. The humans go through almost no politicking, with is rather too neat for me, but that's why alcohol helps.

I'm really not sure who this book is written for as the SF market is not known for its love of fluffy, lightly written, colonization romances. I can't say that I've ever seen this combination of traits before, and except for its sequels, I doubt that I'll see more again, but if I do, you can sure that beer will be involved, or maybe a double mojito.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #1: Introduction

Everyone thinks that they know religion. I've haven't yet met anyone off the street who doesn't think of themselves as expert as the most knowledgeable expert. We live in a culture steeped in religion, so its natural to feel like an expert. I honor your experience, yet I hope to take you beyond that into something new.

I'll use the analogy of connoisseurs and chefs. The connoisseur is an expert of food and its qualities, learning to appreciate the experience in a deep manner. Even with so much expertise, you would never confuse a connoisseur with a chef. A chef's job is to gather ingredients, arrange menus, and present to the connoisseur food worth paying for, a quality culinary experience for the money. Although a connoisseur may appreciate what the chef does, he does not confuse himself for a chef. And although the chef may possess many skills that belong to the connoisseur, his skills must be far broader and deeper because he must navigate a far more complex set of decisions.

In the same way, as a religion creator, you will be the chef, creating religions for others to experience. You will be judged not by your intentions, but by your results. You will use your accumulated knowledge and skills to create something that the reader will pay for, and if you've done your job right, rave about and come back for more.

There is one truth that both religion and cooking share: nobody knows everything, and even the simple things often take considerable knowledge and skill to appreciate, if not master.

To begin this discussion, here's a brain dump of possible topics. This list should give your something to think about even if you read nothing else in this series.

I don't promise to hit this list in any particular order.
  • Religion in General
  • Noteworthy Eras of Religion
    • Hunter-Gatherers
    • Tuber Culture
    • Grain Culture
    • Mystery Religions
    • The Great Prophets
  • Gods
    • Gods of All Shapes and Sizes
    • What is a God?
    • How to Make a Pantheon
    • Pantheons Not Getting Along
    • Single Nature and Dual Nature Gods
    • Gods - Theoretical or Literal?
    • Gods of X and Y
    • Telling Gods Apart
    • Fun Gods and Not So Fun Gods
    • Godlike Beings
    • What are the functional limits of godhood?
    • If gods are real, does that make truth real?
    • Relative morality and divine relationships
    • Gods and civilization
    • Titans, demons, devils, and all sorts of other immortals
  • Divine Places
    • Heaven
    • The Place of Judgement
    • The Underworld
    • Farther Away than Far
  • Fundamental relationship to divine
    • Patron
    • Placation/fear
    • Doom
    • Estrangement
    • Unfamiliarity
  • The Procession of Time
    • Linear Time
    • Cyclical Time
    • Holy Days
    • Cycle of the Year
    • Birth and Rebirth
    • Adulthood
    • Going Gray
    • What Happens When?
    • Equinox and Solstice and other Yearly Events
    • Unusual Events, Signs, and Omens
    • Looking Into the Future
  • Worship by
    • Prayer
    • Dance
    • Song
    • Sacrifice (even Humans)
    • Ritual and Ceremony
    • Event
    • Structures
    • Location
    • Times and dates
    • Memorial
    • By Classes
    • By Gender
    • Public vs Private worship
    • What is this worship thing anyway?
    • Idols, statues, and imagery
    • Myths, legends, and stories
    • Symbols
    • History, religion changing over time
    • Holy things
    • Language
    • Differences by location and cult
    • Written word
    • Spoken Word
    • Taboos
    • Life Events
  • Priests as 
    • Imitators of the divine
    • Officials of the divine
    • Bureaucrats
  • Buildings
    • Temples and high priests
    • The Economics of Temples
    • Shrines
    • House Shrines
    • Holy Ground
    • Cemetery
    • Church
    • Synagogue
    • Monastery
    • Chapel
    • Cave
    • The Wilderness
  • Religious Professionals
    • Priest
    • Prophet
    • Miracle Worker
    • Shaman
    • Monk
    • Oracle
    • Wise Person
    • Seeker
    • Craftsman
    • Esoteric
    • Huckster
    • The Ordinary Woman
    • The Ordinary Man
  • Tropes
    • The religion is lying to you
    • Deeper Truth
    • Decay of the Leadership
    • Passing on the Tradition
    • The Last
    • Shouting in the Square: The Madman
    • The Crusader
    • The Seeker
    • Exclamation points, by Crom!
    • Evil Priests
    • Evil Eunuchs
    • The Wise Old Man in the Wilderness
    • Losing and Regaining Faith
    • Offending the Gods
    • The Gods Play Games with Men
    • Caught Between the Gods
    • Unwillingly Called
  • Life Events
    • Birth
    • Marriage
    • Naming
    • Death
    • Maturity
    • Revelation
    • Childhood
    • Youth
    • Maturity
    • Old Age
  • Magic
    • Divination
    • Revelation
    • Summoning
    • Divine Favor
    • Prayer
    • Healing
    • Scripture
    • Transformation
    • Resurrection
    • Demons and Devils
    • Possession and Channeling
    • Ancestors
    • Fortune
    • Divine Parentage
  • Everything Else


Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Blue Sword (1982)

The Blue Sword (1982) by Robin McKinley is the first of her two Damar novels. In this fantasy-romance, a young woman is swept away by a desert king, but only to train her for war.

Robin McKinley seems to have two modes for me: she's either engaging or long winded. This books falls onto long-winded, as she could easily have told this tale in half the number of words. While nicely written, as is usual for Robin, for me the story falls into the dull and tedious category, with an extra layer of pointless thrown in just to be sure. Most of what happens is a long justification for why a woman can be in war and fight her enemies. However, if you remember that this is the 1980s, when few people making women heroes, justification seemed needed. (It wasn't needed. Other authors simply blew past the justification part and went straight into the adventure part.)

For an adventure novel, it's pacing is quite relaxed, walking our hero through all sorts of things for most of the book.

I found the concept of kelar interesting, a way of interacting with magic that is one part revelation and one part manifestation. Kelar shows you what you need to know, but also provides what you need to accomplish the deed. It is magic, but never quite controlled magic, so its appearance in the story changes the story's direction. I enjoy inexact magic systems.

If this book set out to do anything, I think that it missed most of what it aimed for. It's not enough of a romance to satisfy a romance reader, not enough of a fantasy to satisfy a fantasy reader, and not enough of an adventure novel to satisfy and adventure reader. While Robin handles both romance and fantasy far more deftly, her handling of adventure seems deficient.

I can't pronounce this a bad book, because it does hold together, it's just not my slice of bacon.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Well of Shiuan (1978)

The Well of Shiuan (1978) by C.J. Cherryh continues the tale of Morgaine and Vanye. Morgaine is an otherworldly sort, dedicated to the destruction of gates, and Vanye is the sword and sorcery minion who's out point of view character for most of the story.

This was her second publication, and here she addressed many issues that haunted her first work. In this book, she creates a much better feel for location and place, she better articulates goals, implications, and moral conflicts, and she generally keeps the through line of the narrative far clearer. In the sort of tale where moral ambiguity usually doesn't exist, this tale hinges on those ambiguities. However, even with all the improvements, there are still places where the tale feels muddled and ill directed.

Also gone is the stiff dialog of her former work. The dialog in this novel, while still not fully naturalist, has greatly loosened up, The characters no longer feel like they're always reading from cue cards.

Interestingly, Cherryh begins the story from a third character's view, that of Jhirun, a young woman that lives in the marshlands. I found her the most present and engaging of all the characters, and I wished that we had spent far more time with her point of view. She gives us the world and the complexities in a way that no other character does, with a vulnerability that no other character has. Because she's so unspecial, her actions have consequences where a hero's never would. To me, that made her a more interesting character than any other in the book.

Parts of the book still felt forced, while other parts seemed aimless. Cherryh still has a ways to go before she hits her stylistic best, but with this tale, I begin to see those traits that would make her later books so interesting.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Alphadia 2 (2013)

Alphadia 2 (2013) is an old school RPG for the Android operating system. By the aspect ration, I must assume that the game was ported from a platform with a squarer screen. The game is a direct sequel to Alphadia, featuring the same world and several characters from the last game, such as Enah, the android. Most of the game mechanics remain identical, including rings and infusing.

The overall play difficulty of this sequel was noticeably more challenging than the first installment. While I could cruise through most fights on auto, the fights themselves ground down my party. At times, I found myself constantly healing party members after every fight. The fights could also be grinding while exploring, with encounters erupting as frequent intervals. Scout Orbs are available to avoid fights, but they don't last long.

While the primary artwork was pixels and sprites, each character had a high res portrait for conversations that looked clean.

For the most part, I didn't care about the characters or the plot, not that you need much plot for dungeon delving. Where the story hewed to "go there," I was happy enough. I wasn't ever in doubt about where to go. When the story skewed towards the actual plot, I didn't care, with tiresome conversation following tiresome conversation.

This game had a mission mode which I found annoying. While most missions were straight forward, and therefore fun, some missions that required finding certain items dragged on and on because those items didn't drop. By the end of the game, I still hadn't found enough of one drop type, even with farming, to complete the first set of basic missions. While the missions did offer a mission store which used mission currency, I found it cheaper and easier to just purchase the items from a vendor. This made 95% of all store items useless to me. One early mission didn't work right when the receiving clerk refused to accept my items. Since that part of the game was bugged, I didn't go any further. Later on, I found out that you were supposed to give those items to somebody else, which is completely stupid because you are supposed to give all mission items to the receiving clerk.

I found the ending tougher than expected. I'm used to hard endings, but this one seemed harder than it ought to be. I think it's an example of, "you must win by playing a certain way" style of ending, where I played the game wrong, so I lost repeatedly. If I had really liked the game, I would have thrown myself at the ending, but as I don't care, I don't find myself well motivated. I may try the ending again, but I won't work hard at it.

On the whole, I'd give this game a medium review. It's entertaining enough, but there's nothing here to fall in love with.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Phantom Tollbooth (1961)

The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norton Juster is a charming morality play written as a boy’s improbable adventure. While often silly, descending into lexigraphic literalism with aplomb, the story engages that childish delight in bending, folding, and mutilating possibility, while at the same time using absurdism to show the natural limits of those possibilities. Written in a light and breezy style, the story rolls along at a steady pace, ready to engage minds with short attentions and big imaginations.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Gate of Ivrel (1976)

The Gate of Ivrel (1976) by C.J. Cherryh reads like something old and something new. The stiff writing style, formalized language, and dense narrative reminds me of mid-20th century fantasy and SF that was rapidly falling from fashion in the 70's. Written in the sword and sorcery style of the day, the tale primarily revolves around humans, and just how bad humans are to each other before any magic gets into the mix. We have all the prerequisite oaths, oath breaking, tribal codes, and exaggerated systems of masculine honor.

Stunning in this work is the introduction of a woman as the bad-ass of the series. Like the best of all action-hero women, she never compromises nor apologizes for her behavior. She's a woman on a mission that leaves thousands dead, but that doesn't mean that she likes it. With this 70's action hero goes a truly terrible sword, one in the tradition of Stormbringer, one that gives any honest reader pause.

Despite the surface narrative of two tough sword swingers, the story carries and undercurrent of imperfection and weakness, where the lead characters of Morgaine and Vanye show themselves humans underneath their layers of toxic-masculinity. If anything, the book works against the very notion of sword and sorcery, where the toughest and baddest win. Underneath all her layers, Morgaine is a woman on a mission that's too big to go forward, but impossible to go back. Vanye is a man who's lost his male honor, but which also gives him the freedom to roam free of the hyper-masculine narrative so tied to the genre. He's tough, not because of his hardened outside, but because of his well developed inside. When he becomes Morgaine's follower, he seconds himself to the woman without hesitation or qualms, nor is he so tough that he stands unbreakable before the world.

The book appears to be among her earliest works and it shows. The story has deep flaws. My biggest issue was with place. All the places of this tale blurred, one into another, until I didn't know where we were coming from or going to. There are places where characters seemed in the wilderness, yet other characters come out of the woodwork like they're in Times Square on a Saturday afternoon, a little too like the sudden twists and turns of a cheap movie. And like a cheap movie, the scenes between often prove dull and tedious, providing a little information, but mostly wasting your time.

Despite the appearance of being well developed characters, both Morgaine and Vanye often come across rather flat and dull, just going about their way while continuously stumbling into danger. Wandering about also describes the basic plot. We do learn what we need to know, but somehow the elements never come together into a cohesive whole, even at the end. All the plot lines feel like spaghetti.

While I did enjoy some bits, I mostly have mixed feelings about the book. As a novel, its not really strong enough to stand out on its own merits, its innovations mostly smothered by its mediocrities.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Greek Ruling Couple Meta-Narrative

I was thinking about the story of Perseus the other day, and what gobsmacked me about the story was the absolutely pointless rescue of Andromeda. What was behind that? What narrative purpose did it serve? The only answer that I could come up with was that a queen was a necessary component of ruling as a king. In that vein, I will posit the Greek Ruling Couple meta-narrative.

According to Greek myth, Zeus was the king of the gods, while Hera was the queen. You can't pick and choose, having one or the other. You must have both aspects, both male and female, the make a stable throne. Zeus and Hera, Cronus and Rhea, Uranus and Gaia, these each represented the paradigmatic couples. If we dig a little deeper, we notice that we know the names of both the king and queen in all the stories, which is odd because you normally don't expect to know all the queens, especially in the Trojan War, where the relationships between these couples are significant.

The Greek Ruling Couple Meta-Narrative looks like this:

  • A kingdom requires both a king and a queen.
  • When a kingdom is missing either, it is incomplete and unstable.
  • Happiness ensues when the ruling couple is united again.
  • The ruling couple exists for life. Nothing short of death divides the divine couple.
  • They are the symbolic embodiment of Zeus and Hera on earth.
  • Each rules over their own gendered sphere.
  • When things go awry, the situation can't be resolved unless the couple is reunited or somebody dies.

We see this strongly with Odysseus. He spends his years traveling home, waylaid by multiple women, but these women aren't enough to make him happy. He will only be set right when he reunites with his wife. Meanwhile, Penelope is desperately fending off suitors, because she doesn't believe that her husband is dead, and if he's alive, the gods will surely frown on the new divine couple, wrecking havoc on the kingdom. The story ends when Odysseus and Penelope are reunited, the divine couple is formed again, and those who would blaspheme the divine couple murdered by the score.

With this understanding, the abduction of Helen becomes all the more terrifying. Helen leaves her role as divine queen, but that's something that she can't do. There's no way possible for Menelaus to ignore this slight, for while Helen is alive, he cannot remarry and form a new divine couple. His kingdom is literally doomed because it has lost its feminine elements. The loss of  Helen is not just a loss to ego, but a stab to the very heart of  of the Laconia. He has no choice but to respond, and his allies join in, because they too recognize the blasphemous act. The war cannot end until the divine couple is restored. (Of note, when one person finally won Helen's hand, all other suitors swore to act against any who would break up the marriage. They all understood the important of a divine couple.)

Compare this to Agamemnon, whose wife took a lover during the war, then murdered him on his return. This is not only shocking because a queen assaults a king, or a wife kills a husband, but because the action is a total abrogation of the divine roles of each ruler.

This interpretation makes the story of Oedipus all the more shocking, as if all the relationships in Oedipus weren't shocking enough already. Oedipus makes an utter twisted horror of the divine couple.

During the Trojan war, Achilles falls for his slave girl, Chryseis. Even though they weren't married, you can see how a young man would project the divine couple idea onto a possible future bride. (She was from a good family and would have made an acceptable wife.) For Agamemnon to step in and attempt to take her away would not only have been a social affront, but perceived as religious affront by Achilles, one strong enough to demand an extreme response.

Resolving these issues takes either reconciliation or death. You can see how that sort of extreme solution would result in a series of happy endings or bloodbaths or both, which helps makes sense of the body count in Greek tragedies.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Cheapcore Gaming

I'm a gamer. I've been gaming since 1984 with Wizardry! However, I usually don't refer to myself as a hardcore gamer because I started gaming before that term was invented. (Yeah, call me old.) Back in the 90's, I got tired of spending lots of games and computers, so I decided to always buy from the discount gaming rack and only buy cheap computers. The combination worked beautifully. I called this cheap core gaming.

Back then, with massive jumps in graphics every year, many people downplayed older games as terrible. Games that had great street reputations when originally published had quickly become pariahs because of their comparatively bad graphics. Being cheap, I didn't care. If the game was good two years ago, it would still be good today. And I was right. I spent lots of time playing good games at a cheap price. I also spent lots of time buying terrible games at a cheap price, but I didn't feel horrible for it because I hadn't spent much anyway.

In general, I tended to spend a month playing any game unless I particularly liked it or it really lent itself to more playing. I usually spent 6 hours a day on any game, more on weekends. That's a whole lot of gameplay, which is why I tended to swap games frequently.

These days, I'm still on the cheapcore treadmill. I go through games slower as I have a child and more life activities keeping me distracted. My eyes also can't stay on the screen as ridiculously long as they used to. Because I don't keep up, the depth of games available to me grows, meaning that there are more good games out there than I can easily play through. This low price makes even middling games like Mass Effect playable (if Bioware games can be called playable). No matter how disgusted I got with the game, I knew that I hadn't spent much, so all the tedious planet exploration, cut scenes, and imposed character building didn't hurt that much. I began with low expectations which were easily met.

The advantage of cheapcore is that walking away from a game is possible. I'm not stuck striving to get the maximum amount of money out of my title, and I sure as hell don't feel tempted by most DLCs or other micro-transactions.

Some games are harder than other. Sometimes I'm up for the challenge, willing to work long hours because I'm enjoying the experience, but at other times I just don't give a fuck because the difficulty is perverse rather than entertaining. I strongly prefer a game with good flow over a game with extreme challenges. I especially like the combination of good flow with optional challenges, but I have to admit that I'm not a details dink, so challenges that require vast expertise of game mechanics get lost on me. When playing I tend to find what's effective enough to win and run with that. For example, while playing Fallout 4, I quickly realized that the modding system allowed me to make the equipment that I wanted, but once I had that equipment, modding just stopped being useful. I could have gotten more out of the system, but I didn't care enough to bother.

The real gem of cheapcore is that you have self-permission to ignore all hyperbole and fanboyism, both for and against any game. You feel unafraid to play bad games because there's not much on the line, and even more pleasant, you get surprised by good games like Portal. You also take chances on games that you ordinarily wouldn't play at all. In that way, I think that I'm harder core than any hardcore gamer, who only play AAA titles at full price, and then only those games that they like. While they're stuck in their little hardcore world, I get to stroll about and meet the neighbors.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Limits of Sexism Detection Metrics

I see a few tools used to show sexism in narrative. Used correctly, they can yield useful information, but used incorrectly, or maliciously, they show sexism anywhere the user wants to put sexism.

The Bechdel test is sometimes used to show sexism, but it's there to show one particular form of sexism, that of assigning parts in motion pictures. The ultimate purpose of the test is to increase the frequency of women in film and provide more job opportunities. The basic assertion is that if women are 50% of the population, they should get 50% of the visual representation across the entire industry. It's not there to show that any one film is sexist, its there to show that Hollywood has a sexist bias in the way that roles are written and assigned.

Agency is also used to show sexism in stories. What sort of agency does a woman have? Used well, the question opens up interesting inquiries. Used poorly, it becomes a bludgeon, insensitive to the very goal that it was intends to support.

The primary problem with agency as a metric is that agency exists within the context of a story, while the analysis can happen outside the context. With a loss of context, the tool becomes unreliable.

The second and even greater issue is that lack of agency doesn't correlate with sexism. Agency is used as a tool in many stories, sliding about, to increase and decrease the emotions of the reader. In many action genres, agency boils down to heroes and villains, where even the heroes find their agency challenged. Without a firm idea of genre, without a firm counting of how many male characters vs. female characters lose agency, the question of agency is likely to mislead you.

Objectification can also mislead for the same reason. Out of context, objectification can be seen as separating out women, but in context, these characters may suffer the same fate that many other secondary and tertiary characters face.

The Smurfette principle fails when the user fails to account for the status and importance of a woman in a story. Only if a woman is a universal embodiment of generic femininity among an otherwise diverse male cast does the part rise to the status of Smurfette. Women that are distinct characters aren't Smurfettes, even if they are the only woman. One woman among men isn't necessarily sexist.

The biggest issue is that these tests exist to detect sexism against women. While a noble goal, the failure of these tools to detect other forms of sexism leaves any analysis weaker than it should be. It stands to reason that the more forms of sexism that you can show, the stronger your argument that sexism exists. In many films, the sexism against women is often the weakest and most difficult to show style of sexism, while the sexism by men against men is rampant and easily documented.

A focus only on women means that superficial changes can be applied to films that make the film seem less sexist, but really makes the situation worse. Such an approach has led to the rise of the "strong woman" in film, one who's functionally a bland and an otherwise forgettable character. Such a change is not a real improvement as strong woman are written to seem empowering but more importantly, they are written to avoid offense. In essence, one has changed one stock, interchangeable character for another. At least a stock, sexist woman gets to spout a different point of view containing a different ethic.

Bored of the Rings

Bored of the Rings (1969) was a shameless, opportunistic, money-grubbing attempt to make money off the then-current Lord of the Rings craze. It says so right in the introduction. Created by Harvard Lampoon, the parody throws Tolkien's work into the mud, along with popular culture, some stray dogs, an itinerant card shark, and a frat full of drunk, oversexed men with beer goggles. The results is about as stupid as you'd expect, with unexpected moments of the sublime.

In short, this book is a good way to ditch a few hours and have a few laughs along the way.

Do expect the book to offend. That's its purpose. If you aren't offended, then they didn't do their job right.

The book follows the adventures of Frito and Spam, Goodgulf the wizard, and a variety of other brands and product placements that should have made the writers rich, but likely didn't because this was the era before product placements. Their goal is to destroy the Ring, and between here and there, have more interesting adventures that Tolkien's original book. At least they know how to get in, tell the joke, and get out.

While most jokes are fully adolescent in their executions, a few rise to beautiful sublimity, such as the translations of the various elven songs.

The humor comes come densely packed and thorough, requiring your attention for every sentence. Almost every sentence contains humor, slapstick, or parody to some degree. You don't have to wait for the humor to begin in the least. In fact, the humor is more like the running of the jokes, filling the streets with every humor form known to man and elf.

While the book asserts that's its a masterpiece of parody, that's just it praising itself. As humor goes, its a good diversion, but rarely rises beyond the level of opportunistic.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Patriarchy and Matriarchy as Meta-Narrative

We can use both Patriarchy and Matriarchy as meta-narrative. Don't get these meta-narratives confused with the same things in real life. Meta-narratives are rather idealized and tuned to work inside stories.
  • Patriarchy or Matriarchy (P/M) is the natural arrangement of power within the society because the idealized characteristics of P/M are naturally the best for managing society. Society works best when P/M is honored. 
  • The other choice is naturally the worst arrangement of society because its approach yields unstable results.
You can see how this meta-narrative hews close enough to sexism to get confused with sexism. They're so close that they're almost co-joined twins. But do note the differences. The P/M meta-narrative is about society as a whole, about which approach and values best leads to a stable and prosperous society for all.

Where sexism really comes in is that one gender and its characteristics is categorically better than the other regardless of individuality or context. Society is best run by women because they are not ruled by men's lust for battle. Men are best for ruling because they are not carried away by petty emotions. Each point of view is equally sexist. While it may be true that any group, in general, has a set of characteristics, its also true that any group contains all possibilities. In a group of women, some will lust for war, and in a group of men, some will seek out peace. Groups cannot be devolved into something homogeneous because that's a basic denial of humanity. Where you reduce someone to their gender, that's sexism.

Unfortunately, there's no innate characteristic that naturally makes any single person or group actually better at any ruling system. Variation means that some individuals and groups are better than others. About the only non-sexist, non-anything-ist that we can use as a meta-narrative is that a sufficient diversity of people who each bring their own competence is the best at solving any problem, especially if they can reach out and secure additional expertise when needed.

What's that called? I have no idea. I'll call it "diversitist."

Diversitist:
  • Rule best comes through a diversity of peoples, genders, experiences, and expertises.
  • Insufficient diversity creates problems.
  • Problems are solved by expanding diversity.
  • The skills and knowledge of each contributor matters more than their race, gender, or creed.
  • Nobody deserves a seat at the table for any attribute that they're born with or to.
  • Sitting at the table is earned, not given.

Sexism and Chivalry

* Disclaimer: I'm not an expert in chivalric narratives, so I my opinion below may be suspect.

Chivalry is often thought sexist, but once you look at its structure, it turns into a far more interesting and complex beast.

We know Chivalry from the middle ages, where knights rode off to rescue ladies, which today is taken as sexist behavior. But if we hold sexism up against an informed looked at the medieval period chivalric narrative, does this claim hold up?

The chivalric meta-narrative is based on the culture and practices of the middle ages, especially those at the upper end of the social scale. This narrative codified a set of behaviors, relationships, and obligations. There was a very formalized relationship between Lord and Vassal, but also a formalized relationship between Knight and Lady. Because those days were literally dangerous, knights were assigned to ladies to act as their protectors, with their honor on the line for both how well they protected their lady and how well they honored her.

Much of chivalry wasn't real, it was a meta-narrative that informed stories, every bit as artificial as the sexism meta-narrative. However, as a practical reality, wealthy women did, in fact, need protection. That part isn't artificial. Because this need existed as an institution, and because everyone who relied upon this institution needed to understand it, they told stories about those who uphold the institution and those who didn't. In addition, women in castles worked among mercenaries, men who were hired for combat, hired for their ability to harm others. These were all strangers and very unreliable. It's easy to understand how women would get nervous with these strangers, often foreigners, hanging about the castle.

We think of chivalry as sexist because so many medieval movies were made where the sexist meta-narrative overlaid the chivalric meta-narrative. Naturally, chivalry looks like sexism because the two meta-narratives copulated copiously. That, and the middle ages weren't known for their socially progressive social structure, so while the chivalric narrative doesn't focus on sexism, the sexism of the era did inform the meta-narrative. Interestingly, the sexism of the era differed from today as the middle ages era had different notions about a woman's place and duties. Women were freer in some ways while more restricted in others. For example, women nursed injured knights back to health, literally saving lives, so a woman with great medical skill was incredibly valued by men.

I suggest that judging medieval life by the lives of noblewomen is in error. Due to their station, they had obligations, duties, and privileges not shared by most women, who lived on farms and worked hard. Rich women might be delicate flowers, but poor women got to shovel the manure.

Chivalry concerns itself with the following:
  • A knight owes obligation to his lord.
  • A lord provides for his knight.
  • A knight may be given an obligation to protect a lady.
  • A knight's reputation depends on his ability to protect a lady (a relative of his lord).
  • (Losing a lady is a career limiting move.)
  • A knight's life is subservient to his lady's life.
  • Knights don't boss the ladies around. They serve ladies, not the other way around.
  • Knights gives affection to his lady.
  • A lady gives affection to her knight.
  • A knight's actions are at the behest of his lady. (The Lady gets all the credit.)
  • A badly behaved knight, who violates chivalry, kidnaps women, making the world go wrong.
  • The world is set right when the knight defeats the bad knight, and thus fulfills his obligations.
The chivalric meta-narrative centers around obligations and the fulfillment of obligations. The primary conflict is between knights, between obligations/duties violated and obligations/duties fulfilled. That's why both the king and the lady are barely in the story. In a chivalric tale, happy endings are signaled when the badly behaving knight is defeated by the well behaved knight and happily restores the woman to her family with her virtue intact.

Fortunately for women, even in sexist stories, ladies found way to get information to their knights so that their knight could win. The villains usually used dirty tricks, and the ladies exposed those tricks so that her virtuous knight would win fairly on the battlefield. (Those kidnapped women weren't totally useless.) This aiding showed the audience that the lady had kept her virtue and wanted to go home with her knight. This was understandable. Who really wants to stay with the villain?

Contrast that narrative with sexism, which is concerned about where each gender is happiest and where each has a natural place. This doesn't mean that the medieval system itself wasn't sexist, it merely means that the focus of the chivalric narrative was chivalry, not sexism.

If we inject a modern sensibility into chivalry, where the woman frees herself, that would indicate a failure on the knight's part. If the lady were to say, "I rescued myself," that would be the same as kicking the knight to the curb, who had just literally risked literal life and limb while accomplishing nothing. His reputation would have been shattered. In the context of chivalry, such a modern twist would break the social contract, rendering the narrative unsatisfying.

Am I saying that the lady has to sit back so that the man can rescue her? If you want a story to satisfy a medieval audience, then yes. These stories weren't written for me and you, but for people living in a different age who had different ideas on what made a complete story. They were written for people who had different fears and concerns than you or I do today.

I think that the medieval writers got the balance right on this one: with the knight as the brawn and the lady as the brain, the combination of which gets evil defeated.

In summary, although the chivalric meta-narrative occurs in a sexist context, the central themes of the narrative are more concerned with relationships and obligations than they are with enforcing gender roles.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Sexism as Meta-Narrative

We could define sexism as a meta-narrative. If it's there, it's sexism, but if it's not, it's not.

We could use an exclusive definition. A work isn't sexist if it include the following. If any of the items below aren't met, the work is sexist.

  • Women have their own agency.
  • Women have their own agendas.
  • Women are not dependent on men.

At first, that sounds good, but it turns sexism into a binary, which isn't useful. This definition binds more than it grants, especially as many stories have legitimate artistic reasons for choosing to curtail one or all of those criteria. In addition, this definition only identifies sexism against women, not against men or any other gender. The limited definition is applied regardless of the story's structure or applicablity to the criteria. Finally, the definition is so over-broad that it winds up encompassing everything regardless of any other merits, providing too many false positives, which makes tackling sexism an impossible task.

For example, it's WWI and a group of English soldiers meet a French woman on the road with her children. They don't speak French and the woman is in shock, so they divert to escort the woman to a safer place, amusing the children along the way. By the definition above, this is a sexist narrative, yet objectively, the soldiers act with basic decency and humanity.

I prefer a more limited definition of sexism, one that identifies sexism without pre-defining the narrative.

  • Men and women have natural spheres.
  • Men and women are happiest in their appropriate natural spheres.
  • The world is restored to rights when each gender is in its natural sphere.
  • Each gender respects the sphere of the other.
  • Women and their interests are subservient to men.
  • Men and women don't have ambitions outside their gender perspective.
  • Acting outside your sphere causes conflict and social breakdown.
  • Men are humiliated when acting in a woman's role. (He moves down in respect.)
  • A woman is presumptuous when acting in a man's role. (She attempts to move up in respect beyond her gender.)

To me, this is a much more useful narrative to identify sexism. It works for any gender. I can open up a story and see that it's sexist for both men and women. Most importantly, it exists independent of structure and metrics. Simply because a story contains elements commonly associated with sexism doesn't make it sexist.

Sexism affects men because it reduces the stories that we get to hear. A princess is kidnapped and ... 1) Only the strong hero gets to save her. That's restrictive. In a non-sexist world, 1) her brother gets to rescue her, 2) her father gets to rescue her, 3) her mother gets to rescue her, 4) her sister gets to rescue her, 5) her daughter gets to rescue her, 6) her grandparent gets to rescue her, 7) her neighbors get to rescue her, 8) and so on, 9) and the rescued somebody doesn't need to be a "her" at all.

Sexism means that only alpha-males get to have stories. Allowing other meta-narratives mean that other people get to act and have stories, people more like everyone else. We aren't restricted to just one kind of man, or woman, or anybody. Even simple variations put entirely new spins onto stories even though they have assumed sexist elements. This means that we can still have men saving women stories, which is important, as I believe that men genuinely want and need such stories where they express their emotions through their actions. (Men do that.) Men now get to save women, children, friends, parents, and colleagues. Men get more range of relationships out of rejecting sexism. We are no longer stuffed into a box where we only have worth if we have a woman.

When we return to the example of the soldiers, the story utterly fails to match any of my revised criteria. It's not a sexist story because the meta-narrative has nothing to do with enforcing gender roles. If anything, the soldiers act outside of gender roles by assuming the roles of caretakers and nurturers when the woman is no longer able to undertake her responsibilities. Nobody gets the woman in the end. In fact, the entire story feels a bit like a respite from war because the men get to leave the soldier narrative for a while, get to walk away from being alpha-males and killers, and act as nurturers. This is the kind of story that we really want.