wax banks

second-best since Cantor

The Goodreads problem synopsized.

You must have a sense of how people respond to your work, but you mustn’t fixate on any one response — learning to manage variation in tastes is an important skill for anyone doing creative work.

It’s harder than ever to escape people’s responses to your writing; to ‘be online’ (to live online) is to be constantly, destructively aware of the ultimately irrelevant. Yet you should never get drawn into a lengthy exchange with a reviewer of your work, paid or volunteer, except to clarify errors of fact.

There is no good solution, other (I suppose) than doing good enough work that you can confidently ignore reviews altogether.

Antimodern.

There are two consistent threads in executive/legislative policy under Trump:

  1. Antimodern animus (xenophobia, neophobia, cowardice) and
  2. Equation of wealth and virtue (hatred of the needy).

Trump’s confusion and ignorance are not puzzling or surprising.

The President of the USA is mentally unwell — that has been apparent for years, actual literal years, and should now be obvious for all to see — and when rational people pointed out all through 2016 that Trump was ‘unfit for the presidency’ they meant that literally and straightforwardly. (Everyone who thought he was some canny operator playing n-dimensional chess should be ashamed.)

Those journalists, politicians, and DC parasites who feign surprise at the man’s extensively documented incompetence, ignorance, and viciousness are implicated in the trouble we’re in, and the trouble to come.

The obvious re: fortune-telling.

Divination doesn’t tell you about the future. It can’t, that’s ridiculous.

It asks you about the present.

The waX-Files.

Reminder: if you like this stuff, you will likely like these posts, on The X-Files. The perspective is, shall we say, eliptonic-appreciative, and the attitude toward existing popular coverage of the show is (shall we say?) largely contemptuous. They aren’t ‘recaps,’ sorry, just responses, each pitched in whatever register made nonsense at the time.

I didn’t grow up watching The X-Files, which went off the air while I was in college or grad school. I’ve now seen most of the first four years, and consider it both good and (both historically and potentially) important. The incoherence of the ‘Mythology’ doesn’t bother me, and shouldn’t bother you; caveat conspirator.

‘So Expressionist!’

One obvious mark of a poseur is that they declare art good or bad based on whether they can identify its style. This is a handy heuristic for dismissing ‘critics’: if their interest in a text scales with how neatly the text fits an existing pattern of judgment — genre markers, current narrative tropes, allegorical Significance — then they’re not really attending to the text.

One trouble with art criticism in general, then, is that once you’ve found the great critics, the ones who engage deeply with individual artworks on their (the artworks’) own terms, in their (the critics’) own voices, you no longer get the comfort of abstraction. Great critics don’t arm you for cocktail-party talk about Art, because that talk never gets past schema, category, dead-end recurrence to personal taste. How could it? People at cocktail parties hate each other and share nothing meaningful, since (and therefore) they only hang out at cocktail parties. Strong critics set their own terms; they change conversations rather than keeping them going for status reasons.

(This nitpick, like most of what’s left of American ‘intellectual culture,’ brought to you by a tweet that annoyed me and inspired our post title.)

A note about STAR WARS and myth.

Episodes IV, V, and VI

Star Wars is a myth: ‘The Labours of Luke Skywalker.’ It accumulates story-stuff as it goes along, but the first trilogy focuses on Luke and his companions undergoing trials, separations, revelations, tests, purifications, and transformations (farmboy-to-knight, princess-to-soldier, thief-to-citizen) before the final confrontation with Evil. In the end, the knight enters the castle to slay the father-dragon and the corrupter-god, the princess and the citizen return to the primal/magic forest to do battle with great tree-sized monsters and faceless demons, and Good is restored. They gather by a fire and tell stories as night falls.

This is not news, nor is it terribly interesting on its own. Crucially, the original Star Wars films aren’t about myth — they’re ‘innocent’ in a sense, if anything is.

Myths, as I think Joseph Campbell said, are psychology misunderstood as history.

Star Wars is about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action.

Episodes I, II, and III

The prequels tell two stories: ‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker,’ in a mythic register, and the somewhat less popular but more contemporary-conventional ‘The Fall of the Old Republic.’ The latter political story is more complicated than what made it to the screen, all but disappearing in the third film; George Lucas reconceived Revenge of the Sith in the editing suite as a tightly focused story about Anakin, further imbalancing an already clumsy prequel trilogy.

The Fall of Anakin Skywalker is an inverted messiah/saviour story. Prophesied miracle-baby is taken from his mother, comes to the castle to become a knight, meets and is turned away by his future queen, and in his arrogance struggles with whether to turn his back on his teacher. His mother is captured and killed by monsters; in his fury he bloodily murders them. In his selfishness he courts a princess and conceives a child. In hubris he duels a master knight, losing a hand. In a second duel he bests the old master, and in his weakness of character murders him. Misled by the corrupter, in his terror and arrogance — in his inability to cast aside the misprision of Self which was always the primary obstacle for him and his fellow knights — he declares himself a servant of Evil and helps wipe out the knighthood.

Finally, he duels his teacher, and in his arrogance and pride and dogmatic certainty he is wounded and left for dead. The corrupter makes him into a dragon, and the dragon flies off to burninate the countryside and burninate the peasants…

The political story is there partly to provide context for the two myths. Because we know the outcome — these are ‘prequels’ — there’s no real suspense to it, only deferral. It takes up a far amount of the prequel trilogy, and is the prequels’ most enjoyable aspect, as far as I’m concerned, though primarily in the abstract, i.e. I enjoy reading the story more than I enjoy watching the movies, which are not entirely incorrectly regarded as shit.

‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker’ is also about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action. The political story is, in part, about myth and mythmaking. The prequels lack the laser-clarity of the original films partly because their second story-strand ‘problematizes’ the first; Anakin isn’t simply the author of his destiny, and while the tragic ‘Fall of Anakin’ story is told like an ancient myth, all archetypal locations and abstract gestures and iconic clashes, ‘The Fall of the Old Republic’ is a modern tale which fits uneasily with its parallel mythic story. When they converge — as in the magnificently pedantic wizard-duel in the Senate chamber between Sidious and Yoda, or Anakin’s quietly horrifying murder of the children at the Temple — the story seems somehow greater than itself; it all seems almost worth it.

Lucas doesn’t get enough credit for the complexity (and I’d say importance) of the task he set for himself in the prequels. He failed to bring it off, ‘as everyone knows,’ but throughout that series you can see flashes of something like a work of genius, which is to say, among other things, imaginative excess.

I say all this as prologue to a comment about The Force Awakens and millennials LOL, which I will not now write because it’s time to take my son to school.

The mystery box, again.

Attention conservation notice: 800 words on familiar themes with a familiar cast of characters, hopefully enabling me to put this stuff aside and concentrate on bigger things.

The trouble with JJ Abrams’s inexplicably beloved ‘mystery box’ story-cum-theory of storytelling is that asking lots of questions of the form ‘What’s in the box?’ doesn’t actually take imagination. None at all. The act of imagination is what comes next: building a world inside the box. Brainstorming isn’t creativity.

You’ve seen Lost, right? Started well, then started going to shit the instant its creators needed to start actually answering the Neat-O Questions their premise had raised. Abrams was only a minor force in the making of the show after its first season, as I understand it, but his influence is all over Lost, including its embarrassing finale — that arc from ‘Everything we put onscreen means something’ to ‘Something something nondenominational purgatory because the important thing is that we have shared a TV show together‘ is the most JJ Abrams-y narrative collapse I can think of. (That doesn’t let Damon Lindelof off the hook, of course, but he was awfully young after all…)

I’m not convinced that Abrams actually has an imagination. He can write snappy dialogue, he’s a skilled cinematic mimic, and like several TV directors/showrunners he seems to work well with actors. But he seems to possess no capacity for vision, none at all.

Better a clumsy visionary than a skillful nullity, I say.

That said, I’m sure he’s a nice man, professional, and I’m sure his shoots all come in on time and under budget. I bet he’s kind to children, his wife, his dog. Alas, all I get of him is his work.

What, again with The X-Files?

I’ve written a couple of times that George Lucas is the Chris Carter of film — influential, gifted creators, maybe geniuses of a sort, who nonetheless shouldn’t be allowed within typing distance of their own work. Neither can be counted on to write credible dialogue, but each found his way to making some of the definitive American entertainment of his time on the strength of a creative vision. That term comes up over and over in the superb Empire of Dreams documentary about Lucas and Star Wars — interviewees involved in the film will go on about his limitations (none more wittily than Carrie Fisher), but over and over they’ll come back to his ‘vision,’ by which they mean not only ‘intellectual property’ but something like his unique, idiosyncratic conception of their shared project.

Just go with it, is the repeated refrain, trust in George’s vision. Which is to say both that Lucas’s ability to communicate with his cast and crew was limited because he was a young nerd (‘Faster! More intense!’), and that there was something coherent and in its way beautiful that no one else in the project could quite picture, which everyone involved trusted Lucas to possess and to nurture. Once the first one made a mountain of money, it was easier to trust in Lucas — he could buy trust — which is why the original Star Wars has an infectious joy, a sensawunda, that none of the other films in the series ever duplicated. It does more than just ‘work’ because it might not have worked. When you watch Star Wars, you see hundreds of people making art without reassurance that any of it actually go off, engaged in esoteric labours surrounded by strange icons and images, directed by a dreamer rather than a studio professional.

Carter doesn’t have the same reputation, but his work follows the same pattern: the overall conception of The X-Files — not the ‘concept,’ the logline (FBI agents investigate gov’t conspiracy and Fortean weirdness) but what you might call the guiding world-principle (marginal seekers navigate the American mythosphere in the twilight of empire, dogged by apostles of order and power, searching for transcendent truth) — is Carter’s unique irreducible contribution, a way of seeing rather than a specific sight. What’s compelling about the show, after all these years, is its sense of a specific time and place, a specific ‘multi-user shared hallucination,’ filtered through a particular sensibility.

Creative ‘vision’ isn’t content, it’s understanding: a structure of knowledge, . It tends to be interested in style only provisionally, as a solution to a communicative problem. That’s why visionary art tends toward formal incoherence (genre-crossing, lapses of ‘taste,’ stylistic improprieties, ill-proportioned and anticlimactic narrative) but is often experienced as extraordinarily vivid and immersive, as ‘truer than true’ on a level beneath conscious expression. (As usual, think of Southland Tales.)

The X-Files and Star Wars don’t depict ‘worlds’ in the sense of Westeros, or Middle-Earth. They give accounts of dreams, of myth, and like those imaginative experiences they don’t concern themselves with making sense after the fact, in the critical/analytical domain — myths become mythoi, dreams become dreamworlds, and deep transformation is achieved that can’t easily be explained (which is why we go on about ‘alchemy’ and ‘the soul’ and ‘the cosmic’ and other such nonsense).

We’re sliding towards talking about psychedelia, so this is where we pull back on the reins for the time being.

Summary of RED TIDE sandbox-creation method for fantasy RPGs.

Kevin Crawford’s Red Tide (self-published under his personal imprint, Sine Nomine) is the best RPG sandbox-creation guide I know of: inspiring and evocative, yet succinct and laser-focused. The steps are step-sized. For new DMs in particular I think it’s unbeatable. Here’s Crawford’s high-level process for kicking off a sandbox campaign:

  1. Campaign folder: People, Places, Encounter, Chronicle, Maps (81)
  2. Create two home bases: city and borderland (83)
  3. Additional sites: court + ruin for each of two home bases (sufficient for first session)
  4. Generate initial adventure for group
  5. Between sessions: expand outward a few hexes from current location (84)

The golden rule

Don’t prepare it unless it is fun to make it or you expect to need it for the next session. (84)

Court sites

  1. Choose court type (e.g. noble court, extended family, business): in essence, the type of social network encountered (85)
  2. Define 1-3 people of importance (useful to have different levels of authority for varied PC access)
  3. Give each important person a couple of details and a power source
  4. Identify conflicts discoverable by PCs (e.g. adultery, treachery, theft) (86)
  5. Loose ends: what happens if conflict resolved? rewards? leadership changes?

Court types are listed on pp87-89.

Borderland sites

  1. Choose site type (e.g. estate, delve, village, etc.) (90)
  2. Select tags (92). Consider blending two
  3. Select sub-tags: Enemies, Friends, Complications, Things, Places (1+ of each)
  4. Determine services/available funds: most border sites have a smith. 2x prices for adventuring goods for outsiders. 20% of priests have minimal clerical powers, 10% of villages have 1st-lvl magic user. Most villages can buy 5gp of plunder per inhabitant; larger requires city.
  5. Where is nearest Cure Disease/Remove Curse/Raise Dead cleric?
  6. Stat up NPCs (Enemies especially)
  7. Rough map, more specific if fighting likely
  8. Couple of adventure hooks. Local colour important. Hint at tags to draw PCs in

Borderland tags are listed on pp93-102.

Tags

Crawford’s ‘tags’ might just as easily have been called ‘tropes’ or ‘setting elements.’ For an idea of the level of detail he finds useful, here’s a sample borderland site tag:

Corvee Demand

The settlement’s ruling authority demands that the locals perform some sort of labor for their rulers, providing their own food and shelter while at work. Most credit old customary laws requiring such service, but the laws may have fallen into disuse or be fabrications. Peasants hate corvee labor, as it takes them from their fields, and other settlements often resent the demand for their unpaid work.

Enemies: Grasping local official, Cruel corvee taskmaster, Greedy merchant who misdirects the labor to his own profit. Friends: Angry peasant elder, Historian who remembers the old laws, Magistrate who feels the labor is being misused. Places: Sullen labor site, Empty fields, Tavern with knots of angry men. Complications: The corvee is actually a legitimate demand, The corvee is being used to build some vital infrastructure, The corvee was supposed to be paid work. Things: The pay that was supposed to be given to the workers, Proof of the demand’s falsification, Evidence of corrupt redirection of the corvee labor

City sites

  1. Physical: 12K people reasonable, scale as you like. Walled. Water. Districts, internal walls. Local colour (104)
  2. Social: legal authority. Profession/class/ethnic/religious faultlines. Status of adventurers (105)
  3. Select tags — can be used per neighbourhood/district (105)
  4. Rumours/events per tag to act as hooks
  5. Sub-tags: Enemies, Friends, Complications, Things, Places (1+ of each)

City tags are listed on pp106-110.

Ruin sites

  1. Ruin type (e.g. delve, mine, wizard tower) (114)
  2. How was it ruined? (115)
  3. Choose 1+ inhabitants (116)
  4. Treasure available, twists (117-134)
  5. Stock the site (keyed map)
  6. Typical day? Expected reaction to PCs?

Antagonist groups are listed on pp117-134.

Echo, Resounding sandbox instructions

In An Echo, Resounding, Crawford presents more detailed instructions for building domains suitable for high-level play:

The following system of region generation is intended to allow you to create a large chunk of adventuring terrain in an afternoon, along with its corresponding political structure. You will lay down the major population centers, important ruins, significant monster or bandit lairs, and areas of vital resources. You’ll establish the major political domains in the area and pick out a half-dozen significant villains or antagonists that could serve to occupy more powerful PCs. By the time you’re finished, you’ll have a good bare-bones framework that you can then elaborate in the ways that you find entertaining or useful for your next session. (9)

The process generates a square-ish region 300mi on a side. Each location (village, temple, mountain pass) has Military, Wealth, Social values, traits (like mini-tags: origins, activities, etc.), obstacles to PC control (penalty to location values), and assets.

Here’s Crawford’s domain-savvy process:

  1. Pick a spot and start a map, 200-300mi to a side
  2. Place 1-4 cities (fewer for borderland) spaced out, 10-15K pop in each, near water (17-19)
  3. Place 4 towns per city, 1-2K pop (mercantile centers: villages, fisheries), can be further from major waterways. Blank spaces fine: there be dragons (orcs, plague, etc.) (17-19)
  4. Place 5 ruins per city (1-3 were major human habitations) (20-23)
  5. Place resources equal to number of towns, equidistant (23-24)
  6. Along each land/water route, place a lair near middle (‘the wicked and the bestial, dens for the bandits, monsters, renegades and savages that scourge the wilderness’) (25-28)
  7. Place 3-4 lairs w/access to remote or poorly defended resources
  8. Place lairs in barren areas
  9. Start naming locations and assigning each one traits
  10. Place obstacles: 1+ for each city, town, and resource (29-37)
  11. Optionally assign site tags from Red Tide to cities and towns (might inspire obstacles). This is almost certainly worth doing (RT93-102, RT106-110)
  12. Start outlining domains: unified polities. City-states, fiefdoms, priestly domains, etc. Choose settlements to be their capitals. Neighbouring pairs/triads to generate conflict
  13. Hall of infamy: pick a major regional danger (lich, tyrant, etc., expected capstone lvl of campaign)
  14. Place two name-level (lvl9ish) threats: criminal organizations, cults, major monsters. Attach to cities/lairs/ruins
  15. Place four mid-level perils: warbands, warlords, wizards, etc. Can attach to lairs — any lower-level threats don’t need to be placed in advance, since they’re local enough to be reasonable as surprises
  16. In play, remember to add repeat/significant locations to map

Detailed instructions for more realistic demographics (e.g. city/town pop are 5% of total in region) are found on pg16.

The process for fleshing out cities, towns, ruins, obstacles, and lairs expands on the Red Tide material: city/town origins and activities increase location values, and obstacles play on specific values. The domain management and mass combat rules take up about a quarter of Echo‘s 100+ pages, and a system for integrating PCs into the domain and combat systems takes another five pages. The balance of the book presents introductory material, helpful sandbox advice, and an evocative miniature setting (The Westmark) about 50×50 hexes.

Recommendation

Crawford’s sandbox systems emphasize simple gameable abstractions and story-building over, say, the well intentioned economic simulationism of Adventurer Conqueror King or the well intentioned accountancy of the Rules Cyclopedia, and his thumbnail geo/demographics bypass altogether the well intentioned ‘realism’ of Rob Conley’s method. And he can write!

Even better, every one of his medium/large products offers a comparable collection of tools for procedurally generating your own SF/F gaming materials. I recommend Stars Without Number, Other Dust, and his many supplements without reservation to ‘trad’ gamers of every experience and ability level.

Kudos to him.

ARRIVAL (Denis Villeneuve et al., 2016).

In 2002ish(?) I went to MIT’s all night Sci-Fi Marathon. Had a few drinks. They showed Ghostbusters, and when Bill Murray said ‘Back off man, I’m a scientist’ the entire crowd lost its mind. It was one of the peak moments of any human life.

The trouble with science fiction film is that, while there are smart serious people in Hollywood, very few people on the ‘creative’ side of the industry appear to value analytical intelligence or have any first- or even secondhand experience of serious abstract intellection. Hollywood’s terrible at capturing what it’s like to solve complex problems by methods other than force or subterfuge. (This is why most ‘spy films’ are just fight films with acronyms.) And screen actors, afforded no rehearsal or research time, reduce ‘intelligence’ to mannerism for an American audience that can’t sit still for movies that are more talk (or think) than, um, explode.

It isn’t just a matter of engineering projects or scientific research, say, being impossible to dramatize — Primer came out 13(!) years ago for Christ’s sake, written on spec and shot/chopped for $7K. It’s that dramatizing hard work is hard work, calling for direct rather than analogical sense of the shape of the work being depicted, and the vanishingly few screenwriters and directors who can handle that work are busy making films for stupid horny distracted adolescents, i.e. ‘making Hollywood movies.’

Which is why Arrival feels not just like a classic science fiction film, which it is, but like a minor miracle.

Fear not, NO SPOILERS FOLLOW. Arrival deserves to be seen fresh.

Complaints first, though: Arrival nominally features two main characters, but Jeremy Renner as Ian the theoretical physicist (alas, not believable) is very much background to Amy Adams’s extraordinary performance as Louise the linguist/translator. Ian is essential to the story, but he hardly acts throughout; he’s the sidekick. That I don’t mind, though — the problem is that one of the interesting intellectual elements of Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life,’ source material for the film, has been chucked out along with any sense of Ian’s character. (Fermat, if you’re wondering.) Ian’s job in the film is to perform a bit of basic mathematical analysis at a crucial moment in the plot and otherwise be a kind of Manic Pixie Dream Scientist, which makes sense given Louise’s story but makes for a somewhat imbalanced setup: the compelling drama is all internal to her.

The political material is sketched in, and we don’t actually see collaboration between scientists — when Ian says he needs his team and Louise’s working together on a project, that doesn’t mean anything at all in story terms, because we’ve never actually met either team.

It’s a chamber piece with featured soloist.

Fortunately the soloist is Amy Adams, who accomplishes a difficult task: sympathetically evoking the interior life of an analytically intelligent introvert struggling with unbearable personal trauma (the death of a child), the most difficult and consequential professional task of her life, and — almost incidentally — the awesome presence on earth of twelve Big Dumb Objects.

(Chiang’s first published story, ‘The Tower of Babylon,’ effortlessly balances these three elements as well, in a tale which considers the Tower of Babel as both massive civil-engineering project and mind-shattering supernatural encounter. Chiang is infuriatingly good.)

Moreover, the structure of the story — particularly the relationship between Adams’s ruminative introductory/framing narration and the matter-of-fact present-time action — offsets the geopolitical story (race against the military clock) and the central mystery (what do the aliens want?) with an additional note of uncertainty. Adams bears primary responsibility for grounding the audience while the narrative dream deepens and grows stranger. To the credit of everyone involved, especially Adams and heroic screenwriter Eric Heisserer, the climactic revelations make sense not only plotwise but in emotional terms; the finale is unusual in Hollywood terms in that its full implications play out only in retrospect, without any ‘gotcha!’ thriller-plot nonsense. Adams’s emotional line is crystal clear on first viewing, and the understated finale deepens the significance of her choices without making the first viewing ‘obsolete.’ This isn’t a Sixth Sense-style twisty film, it’s something much deeper, about which I won’t say any more…

Two final notes, then.

First: Arrival‘s most immediately significant (i.e. current) achievement is its depiction of an intelligent, introverted, driven, professionally respected American woman who displays a full palette of complex emotions under stress without ever being The Damsel or The Bitch or The Nerd. She’s a fully realized human being, which is to say her femaleness matters to the story but is never simply part of the scenery. Chiang, Heisserer, and director Denis Villeneuve(!!) deserve so much credit for conceiving the character of Louise and shepherding her through the creative process, enabling Adams to deliver this note-perfect performance. Arrival is a film about identity irreducible to identity politics, you might say.

And last: I remember seeing the restored THX-1138 in theaters in 2004; so much of that dreamlike experience has stayed with me, most especially Walter Murch’s immersive ambient soundtrack. Arrival felt at times like Terrence Malick’s THX, the aggressive/trippy mix of mournful strings and hrrrmmm-hoom!! synths combining with the rich ambient sound to create a world truly apart. I don’t listen to a lot of film scores anymore, but I’m seeking this one out, if only to be able to return to Arrival from time to time.

I was — it feels strange to say this but if you know me you’ll understand why I do — I was, I am, grateful for this film.