Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Tolkienian Science Fantasy - Replacing the PC Species

Recently, Trey of From the Sorcerer's Skull proposed a worldbuilding concept that interested me. How would it change the game to replace the species available to the player characters?

Trey first proposed imaging a fantasy setting without elves, dwarves, or hobbits, but featuring the species from TSR's Star Frontiers setting - the insect-like Vrusk, amoeba-like Dralasite, and flying-monkey-like Yazirians.

Later, he suggested a pulp scifi campaign using the same species, set entirely within the Solar System. (Trey has a bit of a cottage industry reimagining interstellar scifi as 1930s-style pulp confined to just our one star system. In addition to the Solar Frontiers I just mentioned, he's briefly written about Solar Wars, and he has a whole series of posts about Solar Trek.)
Elf Replacements - Vulcan, Talosian, Minbari
I want to build on his original suggestion though, and try some worldbuilding that stays relatively close to D&D's world, populated with Tolkien's heroes and monsters, just with, you know, different heroes, and different monsters.

We know that constraint encourages creativity, and I think that's especially true of worldbuilding. By limiting yourself to a small number of component parts, you can create a compact, thematic setting that's uniquely your own. Look at the 10 Monster Setting, or the 7 Class Setting, or the New New Crobuzon Challenge - they're all worldbuilding prompts that encourage you to select a small number of components and use them as the basis for a fantasy world.
If your handful of seedlings are particularly weird, so will be the garden that grows from them. The downside of that is that you can end up with a setting that's so weird that it doesn't really make sense to other people, and maybe not even to yourself. And obviously, actually running a campaign like this requires securing enough player buy-in beforehand, since their options for possible characters are radically restricted compared to a more open setting.

(Alternately, if you wanted, you could spend your Session Zero letting each player pick out their bespoke species and occupation combo, and then working together to imagine what sort of world it must be if those particular sorts of characters are a totally typical, run-of-the-mill adventuring team.)
Dwarf Replacements - Klingon, Narn, Rigelian
A variation on this kind of prompt would be to try to make your own "French Vanilla" setting. By that, I mean a setting that mostly draws on the tropes of vanilla fantasy, but is specific enough to be uniquely your own, the kind of thing Trey writes about here. And as both Trey and Jack from Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeonesque have argued, vanilla fantasy is, almost by definition, something that is understood by almost all potential players, something that essentially generates its own buy-in because its expectations are so clear. Done well, french vanilla might give you the best of both worlds - enough familiarity to form a solid basis for a shared fantasy gameworld, but enough difference to make something that's personal and interesting.

(I had some success with this in a campaign where I offered my players a handful of classes - human fighters, thieves, and wizards, plus "venturers" who are basically adventuring capitalists, or like, white collar thieves; elven druids and "courtiers", another variety of legit thieves; and dwarven roboticists and tomb robbers, who are, you know, basically more thieves. My players seemed content with the assortment, and I felt like I had established a strong sense of what sort of people go adventuring in that setting.)

What I've called the "Non-Core" is one source for a french vanilla setting. The non-core is made up the kinds of ideas that don't usually make it into the core rules of most fantasy games, but do usually appear in the first batch of expanded content. 
Imagine the sort of setting you end up with if you replace elves, dwarves, and hobbits with drow, duergar, and svirfneblin? Instantly you have a darker and spookier campaign setting, and one will make extensive use of the Underdark as a location. 
Or what if you used only the species that got added when OD&D expanded to become AD&D? What if you had only half-elves, half-orcs, and gnomes? Unlike the "good fey" of a straight Tolkienian game, this settings imply that humans deal with the Unseelie Court as often as the Seelie, and that full-blooded elves are, in their own way, as monstrous as orcs, and both are ineligible as player characters.

Restrict yourself to just "new school" creature types like tieflings, dragonborn, and goblins, and while Old School players might grumble about the loss of elves, the younger generation of Critical Role and Adventure Zone fans might not even notice the restriction - or if they did, they might be more upset by the loss of aasimar and genasi than of hobbits and dwarves.

In a variation on Trey's initial idea to use the species from Star Frontiers, you could also borrow the playable species from TSR's Alternity game - the psychic Fraal, cybernetic Mechalus, bat-like Sesheyan, fringed lizard Tsa, and bestial Weren. 

(One advantage of using totally alien species like these is that it lets you get away from an effect you sometimes see with the standard demi-humans, where each represents a different extreme, with humans like Goldilocks in the middle, defined by our flexibility and moderation. I suspect but I don't know, that Tolkien intended his elves to seem French and his dwarves German, one overly artistic and cultural and the other too industrial and militaristic compared to the "just right" modern middle-class British hobbits and medieval British humans. Though for all I know, old JRR could have been taking potshots at the Irish and Scottish, or maybe I'm imagining chauvinism where none exists. In other people's writing, I think I sometimes see elves, dwarves, and hobbits as representing feminine, masculine, and childlike qualities. This is fine if you want it, though it always contains some embedded assumptions about what humans are "supposed" to be like, which others might find objectionable. Scifi species potentially give you the chance to make humans just one species among several, rather than the center of Creation.)
Hobbit Replacements - Ferengi, Orion, Centauri
But suppose for now that we want to stick fairly closely to the Tolkienian archetypes, but use alien species to create a kind of science fantasy french vanilla. Still unquestionably D&D, still built on familiar tropes, but with enough a difference to make this campaign feel special. For each species being replaced, I have a suggestion from regular Star Trek, from Babylon 5, and from the original Star Trek pilot episode "The Cage".

Elf Replacements - The alternate elves I've chosen here all reflect a vision of elves as "human, but better". I could write a whole post - and who knows, maybe sometime I will - about how fundamentally weird it seems to me that there's a widespread belief reflected in science fiction, everything from pre-Golden Age pulp stories to Star Wars and The Matrix suggesting that human perfection, whether it comes on a species level through evolution or individually through enlightenment, looks like an emotionless ascetic in a monochrome outfit, living in a harsh environment, spending all their time meditating for mental discipline and learning to fight real good.

Vulcans - The Vulcan homeworld is a harsh desert with habitation concentrated around the few oases. Both as individuals and a society, they used to be very passionate and emotionally-driven. At some point in their past, they adopted en masse a philosophy of logic, asceticism, and emotional self-control. The lawful Vulcans have a counterpart in the chaotic Romulans - who are the same biological species, but a different society, one that split off from the other Vulcans before the adopted their new philosophy (or perhaps as a rejection of it?) Vulcans famously have the the abilities to perform a Nerve Pinch that can stun most humanoids, and a Mind Meld that allows them to share thoughts and memories.

Minbari - Minbari society is divided into three castes - warriors, workers, and religious. They value honor and tradition, formal rituals and baroque decorations. Their society is the oldest of the current age, and they have the closest relationship with the Vorlons, the last remaining elder civilization of the previous age. They grow buildings out of crystal, and their ships incorporate biotechnology. Their warriors are skilled martial artists, while their religious caste can use crystal-based technology to produce almost magical effects.

Talosians - The remaining Talosians are the last survivors of a once great civilization. Their physical bodies are weak and somewhat frail, but their enlarged brains possess incredible psychic powers. They speak only telepathically, and routinely project illusions to disguise themselves and their allies. Talosians can read thoughts and project physical pain, but their powers can't penetrate really powerful emotions, such as rage.

I would represent Vulcans and Minbari with D&D's Monk class, which is a good match for their fighting style. I would probably pick the Cleric as a second option. Spells like Command, ESP, and Hold Person are pretty good representations of their abilities. Talosians should probably be Bards and Wizards, perhaps with an emphasis on illusions and enchantments to match their powers.
Dwarf Replacements - Although we might think of dwarves as being miners, or engineers, the replacements I've chosen all kind of tap into the "proud warrior race" archetype. Really, scifi has an embarrassment of riches for this particular trope, so you have plenty to choose from that aren't listed here. Your only limitation is probably your willingness to use a species that's been portrayed as an antagonist for your player characters, since these guys are rarely the heroes in fiction.

Klingons - The Klingons are a very proud society. They prioritize personal honor and the glory won in battle and they inflict harsh corporeal punishment for all crimes and moral transgressions, especially cowardice and other forms of perceived weakness. They consider a death during combat to be the only acceptable way to die. Klingons have distinctive ridged foreheads and fight with a two-handed, multi-pointed sword called the bat'leth.

Narn - The Narn have a reptilian appearance, hairless and mottled with spots. Although once a peaceful society, they were conquered by the Centauri and their planet occupied until they could drive the invaders out. They are now militaristic and intent on both protecting themselves and getting revenge on their enemies.

Rigelians - Okay, so technically these guys, the inhabitants of Rigel 7, are called Kalar, while it's the inhabitants of Rigel 5 who get the honor of being called Rigelians, but it's clearly the better name, and could be applied to anyone from that star system. They are notably taller than other humanoids, and prefer to fight with spear and shield. While Klingons and Narn routinely wear metal armor, Rigelian's wear thick layers of leather and fur.

All three of these species should probably receive a Fighter option, although they have different fighting styles - Klingons prefer two-handed weapons, Narn daggers, and Rigelians fight with one-handed weapons and shields, and are the only species here who wouldn't use guns. Although most Klingons vocally support honorable conflict, their ships use invisibility cloaks, they surgically alter spies to pass as human, and occasionally use poison and suicide bombs to achieve victory, even at the expense of honor. Their second option should probably be Assassin, or its equivalent. The Narn are shown to be pretty religious, so their second option should be Paladins or Clerics, even though in the show, it's a big deal that they're one of the only species to not have indigenous telepaths. Rigelians are clearly also Barbarians.
Hobbit replacements - The symbolic role of hobbits is a bit unclear to me. As I said above, I think Tolkien wrote them as being essentially like modern humans, contrasted against the old-fashioned humans of Rohan and Gondor. In most D&D settings, they don't seem to have a culture that's any different from human society, with the exception of Eberron, where they have their own little Dinotopia. For my replacements here, I've chosen species that are cast as sort of "dark mirrors" of humanity, reflecting our worst qualities back at us. Instead of modern middle-class homeowners, I've chosen capitalists, gangsters and slavers, and colonizers.

Ferengi - The Ferengi are mercantile capitalists. They don't particularly make anything, but they make money as middlemen, buying low and selling high. Their whole society is structured around commerce; their Rules of Acquisition are practically a sacred text, and their currency, gold-pressed latinum, is more-or-less the currency of universal interchange. Their leader is simply whichever Ferengi has the most money at any given time. The Ferengi have very prominent large ears, and they're immune to telepathy. Ferengi society classifies women as property, owned by their fathers and later by their husbands; by law and custom, their rights are severely restricted.

Centauri - The Centauri are a society past their prime. They once had an expansive empire, but most of their former colonies have since won independence. The hierarchy of their society is based on proximity to the hereditary emperor; status in the royal court is the primary determinant of social position. Centauri culture and fashion are still very much frozen as they were at the height of their power; anything new is almost automatically worse. Their taste is ornate and baroque. Centauri look very much like humans, although their women shave their heads bald, and their men grow fan-like crests of hair, the taller the better.

Orions - The Orion people have carved out a niche for themselves as dealers in illegal merchandise. While the Ferengi sometimes dabble in legal vice - such as gambling and holographic prostitution - Orions deal almost exclusively in contraband and outlawed services. Orion slavers kidnap members of their own species, and others, to sell into forced labor. Orion pirates raid ships and seize their goods. Orion gangsters make loans, collect debts, deal illegal drugs, and sell stolen goods they received from the pirates.

All three of these species should obviously receive Rogue as one of their class options. After that, I'm a little bit torn. Ferengi and Centauri would both probably alike another roguish archetype, but more along the lines of a Merchant or a Noble, though most rulesets don't treat those as playable classes. Bard might be a fair representation of their more flamboyant and charismatic members? As for the Orions, I think they could use a Fighter type to act as enforcers for some of their more violent crimes.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Miscellany - Songs for Ohio

"Ohio" by Over the Rhine, Ohio
"Carry Me Ohio" by Sun Kil Moon, Ghosts of the Great Highway
"Ohio" by Modest Mouse, This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About
"Teacup Woozy" by Holopaw, Holopaw
"Ohio" performed by The Dandy Warhols, Come On Feel The Dandy Warhols

Friday, December 18, 2020

In Memory of My Father

In early November, my father caught the novel coronavirus. This week, he died of COVID 19.

My father probably caught coronavirus while volunteering at a food pantry. The volunteers all wore masks, but not all the patrons did. The pantry offered curbside pick-up. And so my father probably loaded a delivery of food into a car whose interior was filled clouds and lungfuls of airborne virus.

My father's death could have been prevented.
A stronger safety net would have prevented so many people from needing to visit food pantries to avoid hunger. Instead, Republicans in the House and Senate refused any of the measures that might have given people more money to buy food or pay rent with.

A more responsible national leadership could have ensured that our country's leaders spoke with one voice, to accurately describe the danger of the pandemic and advocate mask-wearing as a nonpartisan safety precaution. Instead, Republican leaders at every level of government first abdicated their responsibility to ensure an adequate supply of protective equipment, then falsely minimized the danger of infection, and finally discouraged mask-wearing as disloyalty.

My upbringing still makes me feel rude to criticize a specific political party, rather than blaming "the government" or "both sides" - but that blame for our national failure in this pandemic falls almost entirely on the Republican Party. It might be rude, but it's also accurate, and necessary.

My father died with his children hundreds of miles away, unable to travel to see him, with nowhere to stay if we came, and no way into the hospital except by phone. My father died on a day that set a new record for coronavirus deaths, a record that will almost certainly be broken next week or the week after.

During the upcoming holidays, do what you can to protect yourselves and to protect the safety of others. Remember that your choices are not between total isolation and unsafe intimate contact. You can meet online. You can meet in-person at a distance, or wearing masks, or outside - and taking at least two precautions is better than taking one or none. You can avoid large groups and crowds.
Remember that your choices will affect not only yourself. They will affect everyone you meet. Not just your family, your friends, your immediate coworkers. But also anonymous service workers, who you meet in encounters so brief you might wishfully think that nothing bad could possibly happen, whose jobs mean they can't say no to you, even though their masks might not protect them unless you wear yours too.
My dad was kind of a nerd. He loved Star Trek and Star Wars, pulp action stories like Doc Savage and alt-history military fiction like Harry Turtledove. But the right way for me to honor my father right now isn't to remember the things he loved, it's to remember not to endanger anyone else's life the way somebody endangered his.

I will be back next year.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Delicious Miscellany - Milk Cocktails, Elusive Salep, Dusty Spirits, Vintage Perfume, Mad Honey, Antique Opium

The Key to Crystal-Clear Cocktails? Milk
Camper English
Cook's Illustrated 
"After a 150-year absence, milk punch is back. The base recipe for milk punch includes citrus juice or another acidic ingredient. Hot milk is added to the mixed cocktail, curdling the milk, and then the punch is strained to remove the curds. The process removes most of the color and cloudiness from the drink, clarifying it, and it preserves the cocktail from spoilage for months or even years if kept cool. 

The concept of clarifying cocktails with milk might seem a bit odd today, but in the milk punch heyday - the 1700s through the mid-180ss - spirits would have been far rougher around the edges, and in addition to clarifying and preserving the drink, the process also softened the harsh flavor of the booze. The resulting drink is unctuous and silky, clear and only subtly milky, with softer, mellow flavors."

Amelia Nierenberg
New York Times
"In Turkey, winter is the season of salep. Peddlers pushing carts sell the hot, milky drink traditionally made from ground orchid tubers. Students warm their cold fingers around flimsy paper cups filled with steaming salep. Businessmen sip it with one hand and check their email with the other.

But in the United States, the Turkish drink is almost impossible to find or make. Decades of strain from habitat loss, climate change and over-harvesting have taken their toll on orchids, a main ingredient. Export is difficult, as orchids are included in an appendix to an international agreement meant to protect different species from trade.

Still, homesick Turks dream of real salep, which is something like a cross between hot chocolate and rice pudding. The drink is a beloved street food. Many learn to make it only after they immigrate."
Aaron Goldfarb
"As late as the early 2010s, savvy collectors were able to pull amazing finds by simply going 'dusty hunting.' By now, paeans have been written to those who’ve best pulled off the task, like the so-called 'Bourbon Turtle,' who absolutely cleared northeastern liquor stores of bottles that had been gathering dust since the day they were stocked.

But you’re no longer going to find any Stitzel-Weller Old Fitzgerald by heading to some convenience mart on the other side of the tracks; nor does one have decades to build a collection if demanding restaurateurs want their whiskey bar stocked with the old stuff ASAP. Thus, a new breed of vintage spirits buyer, has emerged - one that’s forced to be more resourceful."
Barbara Herman
"Trying to be discreet in the middle of an open office, I'd pop open a vial of perfume and dab it on my wrist. In a ritual that has become as common as having a meal or reading a book, I'd lift my wrist to my nose, close my eyes, and sniff, like a deranged junky getting her fix. In that work environment, it would have been appropriate for me to wear perfume in a style that has been popular since the 1990s: the office scent. It is institutional and conformist. 
As I became bored with office life, my rebellion took an invisible turn. I didn't want to blend in. My perfume tastes began to wander over to the wrong side of the tracks, looking for the rude, the louche, and the difficult. I wanted an anti-office scent. I found myself drawn to vintage perfumes that took me to distant lands and told me stories about fur-clad, misbehaving women who smoked; erotic perfumes that smelled like unwashed bodies; and perfumes that deliberately overturned trite and outdated gender conventions in perfume. 

Take Bandit. Its composer - former model, reputed lesbian, and legendary iconoclast of scent - was the rare female perfumer, celebrated for her daring overdoses of extreme perfume notes. Her masterpiece Bandit, a bitter green leather perfume for women, was said to have been inspired by the scent of female models changing their undergarments backstage during fashions shows."
Emma Bryce
Modern Farmer
"The dark, reddish, 'mad honey,' known as deli bal in Turkey, contains an ingredient from rhododendron nectar called grayanotoxin - a natural neurotoxin that brings on light-headedness and hallucinations. In the 1700s, the Black Sea region traded this potent produce with Europe, where the honey was infused with drinks to give boozers a greater high than alcohol could deliver. 

Rhododendron flowers occur all over the world, and yet mad honey is most common in the region fringing the Black Sea. In Turkey, not only do the poisonous rhododendrons abound, but the humid, mountainous slopes around the Black Sea provide the perfect habitat for these flowers to grow in monocrop-like swaths. When bees make honey in these fields, no other nectars get mixed in - and the result is deli bal, potent and pure.

The honey is taken in small amounts, sometimes boiled in milk, and consumed typically just before breakfast. And yet, finding it still amounts to something of a treasure hunt. The honey’s potency seems to have turned it into a treat reserved for those in the know. The responsible shop keepers know they shouldn’t be selling it to strangers. They are a bit wary of marketing it."
"You really have to work hard to get hooked on smoking opium. The Victorian-era form of the drug is rare, and the people who know how to use it aren’t exactly forthcoming. But leave it to an obsessive antiques collector to figure out how to get to addicted to a 19th-century drug.

He started out collecting innocuous things; at first, it was seashells and stones, then it was currency and Asian antiques like textiles. Eventually he also discovered the beauty of antique opium pipes, bowls, and lamps, as well as opium trays and the hundreds of little implements that went with the ritual. Because opium smoking had been so thoroughly eradicated around the globe in the early 20th century, very little had been written about these objects. After years of intense research, he produced the first opium-smoking antiques guide.

Research wasn’t limited to mining Victorian medical books or hunting down authentic pieces on eBay. As he came across various pipes and tools, he sought out the last of the Laotian opium dens to learn how these accoutrements were used and, yes, to try them himself. Before long, he and a friend had created their own private opium den in rural Southeast Asia, but when another smoking buddy died, possibly from withdrawal symptoms, he had to quit before it was too late for him, too. His latest book details how his obsessive collectors’ bug led to his opium addiction."

Monday, November 23, 2020

Maps & Cities - Gossamer, Hembeck, Spooky City, GLOG Cities, Bastionlands

I like seeing what sorts of interesting world-building other bloggers get up to. I also like a good map. (For that matter, I'm fairly fond of bad maps!) Recently I've noticed people trying their hands at city-building. A couple have set out to create entire cities in some detail, others have more like introductions or first glances. Some are working alone on a project of their own devising, others are communally riffing on a set of shared ideas.
The Wilting Quarter by Jonathan Newell
Bearded Devil, already the creator of the cities of Hex and Jacksburg, recently started in on a new city mapping project, creating a spooky, gloomy fairy city, named Gossamer. The city of Gossamer is laid out on a streetmap like a stylized spider's web. It's possible that the other three quarters of the city will have different moods, but the Wilting Quarter in the northwest is definitely autumnal and dark, full of bugs and mushrooms. The really nice thing about this series of posts is that Jonathan walks us through his artistic process, and we get to watch the districts accumulate to form the quarter, like watching the highlights from a few episodes of The Secret City

Hembeck by Ruprecht

Grindstone Games very recently put out another complete city, this one called Hembeck. Hembeck reminds me of a Roman city after the fall of the Western Empire. The city is filled with temples, towers, and other order-keeping institutions. One neat touch is the use of well-chosen alphabetized names for the neighborhoods, which makes for clear keying, but doesn't feel gimmicky.

Johannesburg Administrative Subdistrict 7 by Mad Cartographer 
Several GLOG-bloggers responded to a challenge that Oblidisideryptch put out on the OSR Discord, and put together introductions to their own cities. The breadth of information that different writers have put forward in response to the same prompt surprised me. We get neighborhoods, landmarks, encounters, goods for sale.

one possible Spooky City by Evlyn Moreau

Anxiety Wizard developed a more systematic way to build a fantasy city, and wrote up the process along with an example, the Spooky City. The procedure involves writing a number of important "truths" about the city and its inhabitants, that are constants; then writing 12 landmarks, 30 districts, and 100 random encounters. Then the city itself can be procedurally generated by placing a few landmarks and drawing a crossroads coming off of each. These intersecting lines form the boundaries of the districts. 

So you have sort of an eternal truth of the city, as well as particular instances of the city that different play groups might find. Anxiety Wizard wrote the lists for Spooky City with help from several collaborators, including Evlyn Moreau of Le Chaudron Chromatic. Evlyn in turn rolled up her own procedurally generated Spooky City, and then wrote up a couple others cities following the same instructions. My favorite is the Slumber City, and especially the detail that paprika spice is a dream drug imported from Slumberland.

Buttermilk Borough by Simon Forster
Addermouth District by Joshua LH Burnett

Misty Tracts by Kyle Maxwell

Inspired by this year's release of Electric Bastionland, and following the advice Chris McDowell laid out for creating new neighborhoods, several people have made their own little sections of Bastion. Bone Box Chant proposes an alternative, watery, dieselpunk city called Phosphene, but the others stick to neighborhoods, filled with a whole variety of interesting sites and complications.
one possible Vornoi City Diagram generated by KTrey Parker

As a kind of bonus, Mazirian's Garden has a procedure for generating explorable cities. This involves creating neighborhoods, then filling them with both obvious landmarks and hidden points of interest. He also wrote some rules for exploring such a city, including both getting lost and gradually learning your way around.

d4 Caltrops also has some advice for drawing interesting city maps. His idea involves a mathematical concept called Vornoi tiles, but fortunately, he also has links to some free online tools you can use to make your own map fairly easily. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Necro-Cavaliers of the Astral Galaxy

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, obviously one of Jack's inspirations
I recently had the opportunity to playtest a new ruleset written by Jack from Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque.

The game is called Necro-Cavaliers of the Astral Galaxy. You can get it free or PWYW from Jack's new itcho.io storefront.

In this game, you portray a highly-cultured and morally-depraved aristocrat, trained in the martial sciences and arcane arts, in the service of the God Empress of the Astral Galaxy. The grandeur of the God Empresses various houses and courts reminds me, for some reason, of the Catholic Church, or probably more accurately of the 2018 Met Gala of "Catholic" fashion, with cathedrals made of bone, and endless orders of nuns and priestesses all dressed in flowing silk. 

I think Jack was inspired by Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth, both by Tamsyn Mur. My own touchpoint for my character was Jack Vance's The Last Castle, which is also about bored, decadent aristocrats who are incomparably talented, but also lazy, incurious, condescending, and immoral. I played a member of House Satomi, who are the God Empresses archivists and librarians.

You can read Jack's first summary of my playtest here, and his second summary here. I rescued my missing sister and was terribly snobby toward the police on a farming planet. Playing a character who is rich enough to buy almost anything she wants, and talented enough to accomplish almost any task successfully is a real switch from most versions of D&D, where something like the opposite assumptions hold true. Probably the biggest challenge was using my character's occasional "insights" to my best advantage. The mystery my character helped solve was apparently inspired by the film Devil's Gate, which sounds like it really wastes the efforts of its impressive cast.
Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, also obviously another of Jack's influences

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Vignette Book Reviews - Cities, Dreams, Afterlives, Odysseys

Current events have really depleted my attention span and my ability to focus. One solution, for me, has been to read books, not just of short stories, but of SHORT shorts, essentially vignettes.
I actually started out trying to read Felix Feneon's Novels in Three Lines, thinking those might be about the right length, but almost all the news-in-brief items that Feneon wrote that became part of this collection are murders or suicides, and there are an awful lot of them. The book might easily have been called Obituaries in Three Lines instead. It was just too much death for me to read this year.
Zenobia by Enrique Palacios
Zenobia by David Fleck
The first vignette collection I actually finished reading recently - well, re-reading, if we're being honest - was Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. I had in mind that I might try writing up mini-dungeons, or neighborhood adventuring sites, or something, based on Calvino's descriptions. The thing that I'd forgotten is that while every vignette is about what cities are like, only a few of them are about what cities look like. My favorite of those is Armilla from "Thin Cities 3", which is like a skeleton made up of nothing but plumbing and pipes with no buildings around them. The rest of the stories are more about what cities feel like, how we think of them and remember them. 

One recurrent theme is the way that we experience only a small part of any city, so that the versions that live on in our heads are much simpler, and involve more repetition of elements, than actual cities really do. Another is the emotion - often disappointment or disbelief - that accompanies the dissonance between the real city and the cities inside our heads.

Calvino's cities are organized by theme, and the themes are then braided so that you alternate between different themes as you read through. It's a skillful structure, and it reminds me of Calvino's Mr Palomar, which is similarly regimented. I don't know that there's exactly a trend toward modernity, but in the last section especially, the cities go from being timeless to being explicitly contemporary, somewhat belying the premise of Calvino transcribing stories that were told verbally in the 13th century.

The braided stories are divided into sections, and between them are interludes of Marco Polo and Kublai Kahn talking about cities. Some of these are obvious, functional framing devices, some are about the difficulty of communicating, and some are like Calvino's own meta-commentary about possible ways for us to interpret the stories, bit like Borges does in "The Immortal" and some of his other stories. He does something similar between the chapters of If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. I'm not sure if the interludes get worse as the book goes on, or if I just get more tired of them. I do have an intuition that if Calvino didn't include the interludes and explicitly instruct the reader to look for possible and contradictory interpretations of the vignettes, the book as a whole wouldn't have been quite so well received by critics.

Although it's not my favorite vignette in the book, for a variety of reasons, the story of Melania felt like the only one I could choose for this moment.

Cities and the Dead 1 -

"At Melania, every time you enter the square, you find yourself caught in a dialogue: the braggart soldier and the parasite coming from a door meet the young wastrel and the prostitute; or else the miserly father from his threshold utters his final warnings to the amorous daughter and is interrupted by the foolish servant who is taking note to the process. You return to Melania after years and you find the same dialogue still going on; in the meanwhile the parasite has died, and so have the procuress and the miserly father; but the braggart soldier, the amorous daughter, the foolish servant have taken their places, being replaced in their turn by the hypocrite, the confidante, the astrologer.

Melania's population renews itself: the participants in the dialogues die one by one and meanwhile those who will take their places are born, some in one role, some in another. When one changes roles or abandons the square forever or makes his first entrance into it, there is a series of changes, until all the roles have been reassigned; but but meanwhile the angry old man goes on replying to the witty maidservant, the usurer never ceases following the disinherited youth, the nurse consoles the stepdaughter, even if none of them keeps the same eyes and voice he had in the previous scene.

At times it may happen that a sole person will simultaneously take on two or more roles - tyrant, benefactor, messenger - or one role may be doubled, multiplied, assigned to a hundred, a thousand inhabitants of Melania: three thousand for the hypocrite, thirty thousand for the sponger, a hundred thousand king's sons fallen in low estate and awaiting recognition.

As time passes the roles, too, are no longer exactly the same as before; certainly the action they carry forward through intrigues and surprises leads toward some final denouement, which it continues to approach even when the plot seems to thicken more and more and the obstacles increase. If you look into the squares in successive moments, you hear from act to act the dialogue changes, even if the lives of Melania's inhabitants are too short for them to realize it."

- from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver
Valdarda by Enrique Palacios
Einstein's Dreams was one of the first collections of vignettes I ever read, and only later did I realized that Alan Lightman was emulating Calvino's premise and technique. These stories are supposedly dreams that Albert Einstein had while he was working on his theory of relativity. They resemble some of the thought experiments Einstein explicitly posed to both develop his theory and understand its implications. The "dreams" are like more fanciful, more poetic versions of those gedankenexperiment, and they seem largely truthful to what we know about relativity.

The stories I remembered best before rereading were the ones where some facet of time-dilation becomes a central feature of social inequality. Time passes more slowly the further you go from the center of the Earth, so everyone lives as high up the hills and mountains as they can, and the wealthy build their houses on enormous stilts. Time passes more slowly inside a fast moving vehicle, so every house is on wheels, cities are just fleets of racing buildings, and the wealthy drive the fastest houses of all. 

Other stories are more about the span of life, or about the subjective experience of time, especially during moments of great importance - some of these imagine that objective time works the way subjective time feels, others that subjective time feels the way objective time works. Some stories work by taking some feature of relativity and magnifying it so that it works at the scale of human life, rather than only being noticeable on the scale of planets and stars and the speed of light. Instead, it all matters at human size and human speed. Someone could probably write a successful collection of vignettes that do the same thing with quantum mechanics. All the stories are set in Bern, Switzerland, so we see the same city transformed over and over by different facets of time.

Aside from the structure of the collection, with dreams instead of cities, Lightman also references Calvino by occasionally interspersing a daytime meeting between Einstein and his friend Besso. These interludes seem largely historically accurate, and seem to be mostly an excuse to include biographical details that help contextualize what Einstein's life looked like before he was famous. None of these interludes annoyed me the was a few of Calvino's did, but they're also arguably less important to the meaning of the book.

15 May 1905 - 

"Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images.

A child at the seashore, spellbound by her first glimpse at the ocean. A woman standing on a balcony at dawn, her hair down, her loose sleeping silks, her bare feet, her lips. The curved arch of the arcade near the Zahringer Fountain on Kramgasse, sandstone and iron. A man sitting in the quite of his study, holding the photograph of a woman, a pained look on his face. An osprey framed in the sky, its wings outstretched, the sun rays piercing between feathers. A young boy sitting in an empty auditorium, his heart racing as if he were on stage. Footprints in snow on a winter island. A boat on the water at night, its lights dim in the distance, like a small red star in the black sky. A locked cabinet of pills. A leaf on the ground in autumn, red and gold and brown, delicate. A woman crouching in the bushes, waiting by the house of her estranged husband, whom she must talk to. A soft rain on a spring day, on a walk that is the last walk a young man will take in the place he loves. Dust on a windowsill. A stall of peppers on Marketgasse, the yellow and green and red. Matterhorn, the great jagged peak of white pushing into the solid blue sky, the green valley and the log cabins. The eye of a needle. Dew on leaves, crystal, opalescent. A mother in bed, weeping, the smell of basil in the air. A child on a bicycle in the Kleine Schanze, smiling the smile of a lifetime. A tower of prayer, tall and octagonal, open balcony, solemn, surrounded by arms. Steam rising from a lake in early morning. An open drawer. Two friends at a cafe, the lamplight illuminating one friend's face, the other in shadow. A cat watching a bug on the window. A young woman on a bench, reading a letter, tears of joy in her green eyes. A great field, lined with cedar and spruce. Sunlight, in long angles through the window in late afternoon. A massive tree fallen, roots sprawling in the air, bark, limbs still green. The white of a sailboat, with the wind behind it, sails billowed like wings of a giant white bird. A father and son alone at a restaurant, the father sand and staring down at the tablecloth. An oval window, looking out on fields of hay, a wooden cart, cows, green and purple in the afternoon light. A broken bottle on the floor, brown liquid in the crevices, a woman with red eyes. An old man in the kitchen, cooking breakfast for his grandson., the boy gazing out the window at a white painted bench. A worn book lying on a table beside a dim lamp. The white on water as a wave breaks, blown by wind. A woman lying on her couch with wet hair, holding the hand of a man she will never see again. A train with red cars, on a great stone bridge with graceful arches, a river underneath, tiny dots that are houses in the distance. Dust motes floating in sunlight through a window. The thin skin in the middle of a neck, thin enough to see the pulse of blood underneath. A man and woman naked, wrapped around each other. The blue shadows of trees in a full moon. The top of a mountain with a strong steady wind, the valley falling away on all sides, sandwiches of beef and cheese. A child wincing from his father's slap, the father's lips twisted in anger, the child not understanding. A strange face in the mirror, gray at the temples. A young man holding a telephone, startled at what he is hearing. A family photograph, the parents young and relaxed, the children in ties and dresses and smiling. A tiny light, far through a thicket of trees. The red at sunset. An eggshell, white, fragile, unbroken. A blue hat washed up on shore. Roses cut and adrift on the river beneath the bridge, with a chateau rising. Red hair of a lover, wild, mischievous, promising. The purple petals of an iris, held by a young woman. A room of four walls, two windows, two beds, a table, a lamp, two people with red faces, tears. The first kiss. Planets caught in space, oceans, silence. A bead of water on the window. A coiled rope. A yellow brush."

- from Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman

Sofronia by Enrique Palacios
Sophronia by David Fleck
The first time I read the vignettes of possible gods and possible afterlives in David Eagleman's Sum, it reminded me of a series of thought experiments I read in my college philosophy class (either Plato's Phaedo or one of David Hume's essays on Natural Religion) - what if god is an automated universe-building robot left behind on autopilot by an earlier inventor god? what if god is a vegetable and only cares about the existence of plantlife? what if our god is the youngest, weakest, most foolish member of a vast pantheon, and all the others created superior universes? etcetera ...

Some of Eagleman's vignettes imagine different versions of god, others imagine different versions of the afterlife, still others are really about different images of what the universe is and how it was made. Quite a few deal with the purpose of existence, which consistently seems to be something like achieving a lasting romantic love. There are recurrent themes of fallible gods being frustrated by their inability to fully understand or control the universe, and of human souls being disappointed with the afterlife. A few visions of reincarnation involve people alternating between modes of existence, each of which is intended to compensate for the flaws of the other.

The title story, "Sum", reminds me so much of Stanislaw Lem's "One Human Minute" that I wonder if Eagleman was inspired by it. The afterlife in "Metamorphosis", where people wait in a sort of heavenly antechamber until they are finally forgotten by everyone still living, strikes me as very similar to the starting premise of Kevin Brockmeier's A Brief History of the Dead. There are a number of stories with alien creators, like Deep Thought in Douglas Adam's Hitchiker's Guide trilogy, who built both the Earth and human beings as a type of living computers.

The best stories here help you to think about life in a different way, or the many varieties of loss, or the many ways that adulthood involves becoming disillusioned with something that seemed simpler and purer when you were a child. The worst stories are typically too simple, too pat, too self-satisfied, invoking romantic love as some sort of compensation or cure-all for all of life's disappointments.

I found myself unable to pick between these two stories, both of which, I think, speak to the current moment. 

Microbe -

"There is no afterlife for us. Our bodies decompose upon death, and then the teeming floods of microbes living inside us move on to better places. This may lead you to assume that God doesn't exist - but you'd be wrong. It's simply that He doesn't know we exist. He is unaware of us because we're at the wrong spatial scale. God is the size of a bacterium. He is not something outside and above us, but on the surface and in the cells of us.

God created life in His own image; His congregations are the microbes. The chronic warfare over host territory, the politics of symbiosis and infection, the ascendancy of strains: this is the chessboard of God, where good clashes with evil on the battleground of surface proteins and immunity and resistance.

Our presence in this picture is something of an anomaly. Since we - the backgrounds upon which they live - don't harm the life patterns of the microbes, we are unnoticed. We are neither selected out by evolution nor captured in the microdeific radar. God and His microbial constituents are unaware of the rich social life we have developed, of our cities, circuses, and wars - they are as unaware of our level of interaction as we are of theirs. Even while we genuflect and pray, it is only the microbes who are in the running for eternal punishment or reward. Our death is unnoteworthy and unobserved by the microbes, who merely redistribute onto different food sources. So although we supposed ourselves to be the apex of evolution, we are merely the nutritional substrate.

But don't despair. We have great power to change the course of their world. Imagine that you choose to eat at a particular restaurant, where you unwittingly pass a microbe from your fingers to the saltshaker to the next person sitting at the table, who happens to board an international flight and transport the microbe to Tunisia. To the microbes, who have lost a family member, these are the mystifying and often cruel ways in which the universe works. They look to God for answers. God attributes these events to statistical fluctuations over which He has no control and no understanding."

Ineffable - 

"When soldiers part ways at war's end, the breakup of the platoon triggers the same emotion as the death of a person - it is the final bloodless death of the war. This same mood haunts actors on the drop of the final curtain: after months of working together, something greater than themselves just died. After a store closes its doors on its final evening, or a congress wraps its final session, the participants amble away, feeling that they were part of something larger than themselves, something they intuit had a life even though they can't quite put a finger on it.

In this way, death is not only for humans but for everything that existed.

And it turns out that anything which enjoys life enjoys an afterlife. Platoons and plays and stores and congresses do not end - they simply move on to a different dimension. They are things that were created and existed for a time, and therefore by the cosmic rules they continue to exist in a different realm.

Although it is difficult for us to imagine how these beings interact, they enjoy a delicious afterlife together, exchanging stories of their adventures. They laugh about good times and often, just like humans, lament the brevity of life. The people who constituted them are not included in their stories. In truth, they have as little understanding of you as you have of them; they generally have no idea you existed.

It may seem mysterious to you that these organizations can live on without the people who composed them. But the underlying principle is simple: the afterlife is made of spirits. After all, you do not bring your kidney and liver and heart to the afterlife with you - instead, you gain independence from the pieced that make you up.

A consequence of this cosmic scheme may surprise you: when you die, you are grieved by all the atoms of which you were composed. They hung together for years, whether in sheets of skin or communities of spleen. With your death they do not die. Instead, they part ways, moving off in their separate directions, mourning the loss of a special time they shared together, haunted by the feeling that they were once playing parts in something larger than themselves, something that had its own life, something they can hardly put a finger on."

- from Sum by David Eagleman
Diomira by David Fleck
The last book of short-shorts I finished recently was The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason. These actually aren't all vignettes, and have the most variation in length. Both the shortest and longest stories across these four books are here. 

Some are retellings of parts of the Odyssey from different viewpoints - like in "Death and the King" where 'Paris' is the personification of Death and 'Ilium' is the City of the Dead, or in "The Iliad of Odysseus" where Odysseus deserts the war just before its conclusion and spends the years before returning to Ithaca disguised as a traveling storyteller, who invents the story that we know as the Odyssey to mythologize himself. Others are just interesting stories that involve the familiar characters - the best of these are like Greek myth themed episodes of The Twilight Zone.

Moreso than Calvino, I think Mason is particularly channeling Borges here. The book itself claims to be a series of translations of fragments of apocryphal versions of Homer's Odyssey found in an Egyptian rubbish heap, which is the sort false attribution that introduced so many of Borges' stories. "The Guest Friend" and "Agamemnon and the Word" in particular also feel like they're about Borges' preoccupation with ideas becoming reality, and with attempts to create a perfect language, respectively.

If Eagleman's weakest stories are too trite, Mason's are too obscure. I think this is especially true in the stories where he leans into the "fragment of a longer document" premise, but there are a handful of vignettes here where I don't really understand what effect Mason was hoping to achieve, and don't think I was moved in the way he might have hoped. 

Like Calvino, Mason includes a few stories near the end of his collection with anachronisms that subvert the supposed provenance of the writings, and in both cases I found the effect, used in small doses, to be humorous and enjoyable. Many of the latter stories are especially short, and many contain a fragment of a story within a fragment of a story. This story reminds me a little of the first vignette I selected up at the top of the post, and has the sort of Twilight Zone ending that I enjoyed in so many of Mason's stories.
The Other Assassin -

"In the Imperial Court of Agamemnon, the serene, the lofty, the disingenuous, the elect of every corner of the empire, there were three viziers, ten consuls, twenty generals, thirty admirals, fifty hierophants, a hundred assassins, eight hundred administrators of the second degree, two thousand administrators of the third and clerks, soldiers, courtesans, scholars, painters, musicians, beggars, larcenists, arsonists, stranglers, sycophants and hangers-on of no particular description beyond all number, all poised he serene, the etc. emperor's will. It so happened that in the twentieth year of his reign Agamemnon's noble brow clouded at the thought of a certain Odysseus, whom he felt was much too much renowned for cleverness and renown he preferred to reserve for the throne. While it was true that this Odysseus had made certain contributions to a recent campaign, involving the feigned offering of a horse which had facilitated stealthy entry into an enemy city, this did not justify the infringement on the royal prerogatives, and in any case, the war had long since been brought to a satisfactory conclusion, so Agamemnon called for the clerk of Suicides, Temple Offerings, Investitures, Bankruptcy and Humane and Just Liquidation, and signed Odysseus's death warrant.

The clerk of Suicide, etc. bowed and with due formality passed the document to the General who Holds Death in His Right Hand, who annotated it, stamped it, and passed it to the Viceroy of Domestic Matters Involving Mortality and so on through the many twists and turns of the bureaucracy, through the hands of spy-masters career criminals, blind assassins, mendacious clerics and finally to the lower ranks of advisors who had been promoted to responsibility for their dedication and competence (rare qualities given their low wages and the contempt with which they were treated by their well-connected or nobly born superiors), one of whom noted it was a death order of high priority and without reading it assigned it to that master of battle and frequent servant of the throne, Odysseus.

A messenger came to Ithaca and gave Odysseus his orders. Odysseus read them, his face closed, and thanked the messenger, commenting that the intended victim was in for a surprise, and that he was morally certain no problems would arise on his end.

On the eight succeeding days Odysseus sent the following messages to the court as protocol required:

'I am within a day's sail of his island.'

'I walk among people who know him and his habits.'

'I am within ten miles of his house.'

'Five miles.'

'One mile.'

'I am at his gate.'

'The full moon is reflected in the silver mirror over his bed. The silence is perfect but for his breathing.'

'I am standing over his bed holding a razor flecked with his blood. Before the cut he looked into my face and swore to slay the man who ordered his death. I think that as a whispering shade he will do no harm.' "

- from The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason