Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Orcs are evil

Orcs are a fantasy monster.  While Tolkien may have standardized them as the basic low-level mook hounding the protagonists, the idea of the orc goes back millennia before.  The word "orc" is an Anglicization of the Italian word "orco", which is a kind of monstrous demon of Italian fairy tales that feeds on human flesh.  This is identical to "ogre" in classic French fairy tales, which became its own type of monster in the modern era.

The orco takes its name from Orcus, one of the Roman gods of the underworld.  Orcus was particularly associated with torment and punishment, and therefore also associated with evil and demons.  He was normally depicted as a giant hairy monster.

Tolkien's orcs are likewise demonic monsters who eat human flesh.  Tolkien never settled on one particular explanation of their origins.  The movies actually show us two of his proposals: one, as corrupted elves who were bent by Sauron's dark powers, and another as monsters created by evil magic and birthed from pits of mud and slime.  In the Hobbit, orcs are just very large goblins.

Orcs cannot stand sunlight.  They hide from daylight in caves and holes underground, and only emerge during the dark of night to slaughter and plunder, and drag their victims back to their lairs to be devoured.

Whether demons of a dark god of death, or spawned from a wizard's slime pit, orcs are evil.  Orcs are inhuman monsters.  Orcs don't exist in the real world; but if they did, orcs are exactly the thing humans should hate and kill.

Orcs are more intelligent than the wolves they partner with.  But not much.  Orcs can use weapons and tools and battle tactics and have fighting prowess equivalent to a man.  This is arguably what makes them such an ideal opponent in fantasy.  They offer the challenge of killing a human-like foe, but without the moral ambiguity of murder.

Because you can't murder an orc.  You slay an orc.

Orcs are irredeemable monsters of bloodlust, hatred, and violence.  They have nothing to offer to people, except the adventure of slaying them.

Orcs are a projection of something even older than the word, something older than Tolkien, something older than the Romans, something living in the human psyche.  Orcs are a manifestation of the notion of evil monsters dwelling in darkness and emerging only at night to steal, kill, and devour.  They are the thing from your childhood nightmares, put into a certain form, to entertain you in fantasy escapism.

Why am I saying these mean things about orcs?  Because that's the way orcs "are".  Obviously orcs don't really exist, and therefore "exist" only in a kind of tertiary sense.   But in so far as orcs are postulated in fairy tales and fantasy, that is what orcs are.

Now.  This topic of orcs and their portrayal is currently trending on twitter.  So if you just read any of the things I said about orcs, and your thought was "how dare you say that about black people"... then you are a racist.

And I can hear you back-pedaling.  No no, you don't mean that you think of black people when you hear those descriptions (even though you made the association...).  What you mean is that the kind of language I am using to describe an inhuman monster, is the same kind of language used by racists in the past to dehumanize people.  When books or games describe orcs, they lean on racist language used in the past.  It's those other people (whose thoughts you can read) who are thinking of black people when they describe orcs.

But that assertion has the order of things reversed.

DnD isn't using racist language to describe orcs.

The reality is that racists use orcs to describe other humans.

Racists often try to cast their fellow man as an orc, as a savage monster without a conscience.  Racists try to pretend that another group of humans are creatures from fairy tales and nightmares.  Racists want it so that when you think of their particular pet group of people to hate, they evoke in your mind the fiends that will drag bad children into the darkness to be eaten.

It is dehumanizing language.  It is dehumanizing language precisely because orcs are not humans.  Describing people as orcs is literally describing people as inhuman monsters, because that is what orcs literally are.

If you think you can counter racist descriptions of black or brown people, by portraying orcs as favorable depictions of minorities, then you are doing what the racists wanted.  You are linking a group of humans to the thing lurking in my childhood closet.  You are strengthening the association that the KKK wants us all to have.

When you try to portray orcs as peaceful, thoughtful souls with a beautiful and rich culture of oral histories and excellent pottery, you aren't doing anything other than saying you think some group of humans are a reasonable stand-in for inhuman monsters... but inhuman monsters that have your sympathy.

Trying to humanize orcs means asserting that a man-eating monster birthed from slime pits with barely more intelligence than a dog could properly belong to the category of "human being."

Orcs are evil.  They do not represent humans.  Their depictions as savage monsters stems from areas deep within the human mind and the common childhood fears we all share, expressed in myth, legend, and folklore.  It does not stem from white supremacist language or colonialists.  Orcs are equal-opportunity butchers, who murder and devour humans of every race equally alike.

Portraying humans as orcs, or orcs as humans, is wicked and racist.

But no one needs to apologize for portraying orcs as orcs.

Monday, April 20, 2020

How I came to DCC and the Old School of Gaming

Smaug, from the only feature-length adaptation of the Hobbit
My dad is a Tolkien nerd who grew up in the 70s.  Therefore my dad played DnD as a teenager.

I also grew up a Tolkien nerd, watching the Rankin/Bass version of the Hobbit (which is still the only movie version of the Hobbit) until I was old enough to read it.

One day, between about 8 and 11 years old, I discovered my dad's copy of Gary Gygax's original DMG for AD&D (the one with the metal-girded demon abducting a maiden), and his copy of Dr. Eric Holmes' Basic Ruleset (the blue cover with the dragon on his hoard of gold).

I was immediately sold.

Cover of Holmes' Basic Rules
I had no idea how to play this game I was reading about, or who I would play with it were I to play, but I spent whole afternoons locked in my room reading over different traps and fantastical items in a dungeon, the horrific monsters
lurking in the shadows, the powers of these beasts and what items players should use to defeat them.  I was even mesmerized by the opening discussion of bell curves vs uniform distributions with dice.

Most of all, I loved the art work and the maps.  I loved the skull mountain view.  I loved the thief left to die in a pit trap by his companions, and the lizardman rider.  I loved the rat caves and the underwater rivers.  I loved the gnome abducted by the ghouls.  Even without playing the game, the books stole me away to these magical worlds, where I became lost in it all.

Eventually I thought I had absorbed enough of the gist of the game that I tried to play with friends.  My version was extremely simplified, and had my own modifications, and my dungeons were linear and nonsensical, but it was still fun escapism at its best.

Eventually we moved, and I had trouble making friends.  I tried to get games together, but none of the people I hung out with were really interested in the game.  Most of my friends throughout middle school and high school weren't nerds, but the sort of bubblegum punk scene that was the style in the 00s.  I went through most of high school without getting my hands on the game, except maybe for the sort of second-tier experience afforded by Neverwinter Nights.

When I got into college, I finally had enough friends (and close enough friends) willing to play that I started trying to get a game together.  By this time, the game was in the 3rd edition.

3E was a radical change to the game.  Many of the changes persist, and many of the changes are objectively better.  Changes like ascending armor class instead of tables and THAC0.  No matter how much I read, I never ever understood what THAC0 was, until after I had a math degree and a masters in physics.  I'm not saying descending AC is wrong, just that it's more work to explain and keep track of and an immediate conceptual hurdle.

Many of the changes in 3E were better.  But some of the changes weren't better.

There were tons of major changes.  There were lists of skills and feats, and rules for selecting feats, and special abilities, and all these new races, and all these new classes, and so many things to consider.  I tried to get a handle on it, but it was too much to keep track of.  I felt like I needed a computer to keep track of all of these rules and conditions in the game, and this game was supposed to be the more immersive alternative to playing games on a computer.

The rulebook was also like $60 and I couldn't afford it.  I had to get my information from free d20 resources on the web.

We tried playing, and got a few sessions in, but this wasn't the same game.  It was too much like a video game, and not like structured imagination.  We stopped pretty soon.  It was too much effort, and I didn't bother putting together any new games.

I tried again later in college, after I transferred to a state university (from a community college).  The rulebooks were still ridiculously overpriced and there are like four of them, but the box set claimed to be all you need to get started, and was pretty affordable.  So I got it.  The cover art was redolent.  I planned on getting a game together.

This was the era of the much-maligned 4E.

What was wrong with 3E, was magnified in 4E.  There were too many rules, too many special powers to keep track of, so much specialization and special builds.  Moreover, there was a complete change in... tone... in feeling... in theme.  The artwork was very high quality.  Yet it lacked the heart and soul of the amateur line art I remembered.  The races and classes I remembered were straight out of the books I read growing up.  I could point to them in the pages of the stories I loved.  Now there were all kinds of things whose origin I didn't understand; they seemed contrived just for the game.

I couldn't even understand HOW to play.  Do I have to get rolls of giant grid paper and draw giant table-sized maps of extreme detail?  I need figurines for every monster I want to include?  I don't have time or money for that, and if I did I'd just play Warhammer.

I tried yet again when I was in grad school.  I had some highly nerdy friends who were very close.  It would have been perfect.  I started arranging a campaign, I realized I could just use the basic d20 SRD (and avoid 4E), and I started making my own campaign world that stayed far away from all the campiness of 4E and later 3E materials.  But it was still too much.  There were too many rules, and I spent too much time just trying to figure out how everything works and we never got to play the campaign I planned.

It was a few years ago, on a whim, that I found myself in a friendly local game store.  And I saw on the shelf an absolute tome of a book, covered in tie-dye colors with a heavy-metal wizard glaring out from the spine.

As soon as I opened the book, I knew what I was looking at.  I was back again in my childhood home, reading about the fantastic worlds of magic and might and the rules that governed them.

The rules were a vastly simplified form of d20.  It kept many of the benefits, but threw out all the chaff.  Skills became a single mechanic: your starting occupation.  Feats, necessary to give the fighter some power, became a single mechanic: roll this one die every time you attack.  The magic became, once again, magical.  It was twisted and arcane and absolutely other.  The departures from the usual vancian system all worked to make it even more unreliable and powerful and align more perfectly with the archetypes of legend.  Even the funky dice, imagining polyhedral solids beyond the standard eight, brought up the memory of the first time I saw my dad's icosahedral d10, with one side painted red to be a d20.

I was immediately sold.

Of course, DCC is just one example of games comprising the OSR, the Old School Renaissance.  It's not a true card-carrying OSR game because it isn't a mere retroclone, and instead sticks fairly close to d20.  But I see in it the same game that enchanted me as a kid reading his father's books, now perfected with the design benefits of the d20 system for simplicity of play.

The part that caused me to freeze up and never play in my past forays -- the overabundance of rules -- was explicitly absent.  I was expected and encouraged to make up my own rules, and run things however I wanted.  I didn't have to memorize lists of things like Mighty Cleave and Flurry of Blows and Hit the Guy Twice.  If I didn't know how grapple worked, I could just make it up.

That is how I ended up in DCC and the OSR, after years of trying to get back to the game I used to play as a kid.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Letter for the King: just adapt the book, not your fanfiction

I recently watched The Letter for the King on Netflix, and thought I'd offer a small thought on the series.

I should preface all of this by stating that I have never read the book.  I had actually never heard of the book.  I looked up the book later on Wikipedia, after watching the first episode.  I might actually read the book.

That out of the way, let me list some positives of the series.  The child actors are great.  I can't say the same about whoever it was playing the puppy-kicking prince, but the others made great performances.  The visual effects were great.  The costumes and props and sets were great.  A lot of people clearly put a lot of effort and thought and care into the series.  It shows through.

But some other people didn't put any effort in.  Namely, the writers.  The writers did not care.  That also shows through.

From episode one, the series is on fantasy autopilot.  It opens with whispered prophecies of dark lords and the chosen one, then cuts to some angsty dark prince doing his best teenage Anakin impersonation.  I half-expected him to rant about sand.  And it stays there resolutely until the final scene of the final episode.  The series is nothing but cliche after cliche.  It plays like A Tough Guide to Fantasy Land put on the silver screen.  You can call what will happen twenty minutes before it does.  Within the first five minutes, I already knew what this was going to be, and was ready to just turn it off.

The writing is crappy.  But it's based on a book.  Maybe the book uses a less heavy hand, and elaborates better on some of these confusing points?  Maybe the book could help me appreciate the screenwriting better?

So I looked up the book.  Apparently, several characters and places from the series have similar names as in the book, and the main character needs to deliver a letter to a king in the book.  And there end the similarities between the series and the book.

This brings me to what I really wanted to say.

The Letter for the King was originally written in Dutch, titled De brief voor de koning, by Tonke Dragt back in 1962.  It has sold over a million copies, and is on its fiftieth print edition.  It has been translated into several languages, including Danish, English, German, Greek, Estonian, French, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Czech, and Spanish.  It was chosen as one of the the best Dutch books for children in the 20th century.  (Or so the 'Pedia says)

The personal fanfiction of the series writers... isn't any of that.

Back in 2018, Netflix went and acquired the screen rights to adapt De brief voor de koning into an original series.  That's why they are able to call it The Letter for the King, and include so many characters with similar names.

They had to pay money for these rights.  I need to stress that.  I need to stress that because Netflix could have merely made their own original fantasy movie about a child on a magical quest and given it a different name, and not have had to pay money for the rights to De brief voor de koning.

But the executives at Netflix determined that being able to adapt this particular story was worth shelling out the money for.

Presumably, they decided this because De brief voor de koning has sold millions of copies and been in continual print for sixty years, translated into dozens of languages, and is remembered by millions of readers.

Unlike -- and again, I have to stress -- unlike the personal fanfiction of whoever wrote the plot of this series.

Which makes me have to question why?

Why would you pay good, solid money to adapt an internationally beloved children's story, and then not adapt the internationally beloved children's story?

Why adapt crappy fanfiction into a movie, when you have a solid, award-winning story right there on hand?

I can kind of understand why calling the movie The Letter For the King when it wasn't might have been a "good" business idea in the past.  Basing a movie on a pre-existing story allows you to capitalize on the fame and fanbase of the original product to sell tickets.  By the time you piss off the fanbase, it's too late; they already bought their ticket.  The worst they can do now is grumble.

It's similar to how certain food companies would put sawdust in sugar bags if they could get away with it.  Imagine if food distributors could pay sugar companies for the right to put the word "sugar" on their sawdust bags.

Well, food companies can't, but movie companies can.

But today, when every idiot has their own blog, when there are automatic review aggregators and sites for fans to leave comments and everyone and their grandma can sound off on their facebook, I don't get why you'd do this.

The series is currently rated at around 5/10, and very many of those low reviews are from angry fans of the book.

You should never underestimate angry fans, and especially not today when they know your twitter handle.  They will review-bomb your film, brigade your facebook page, and send you death threats on twitter.

I have to imagine that many of those angry fans might have watched a children's fantasy flick regardless of its title, and they would have measured it against itself, or against other children's fantasy movies, and it would have fared okay.  But Netflix didn't tell them this was any old fantasy movie; Netflix said this was a fantasy movie based on De brief voor de koning.

Netflix did not have to piss these people off.  They didn't have to call their movie that.

Netflix paid for the rights to adapt the book.  Netflix did not adapt the book.  Netflix instead made a movie based on Will Davies' fanfiction.  This angered fans, and gave the movie a lower rating.

In no uncertain terms then, Netflix paid money to have angry fans write them negative reviews on IMBD.

But Netflix paid for the rights to adapt the book, and therefore they could have just adapted the book.

Okay, if you don't have sugar and only have sawdust, you might write "sugar" on the bag anyway and try to sell it.

But Netflix did not only have sawdust.  Netflix had the actual sugar.  Netflix had the book that they paid the money for.  The book that won all those awards and sold all those copies and has all those millions of fans.  The book whose popularity Netflix wants to use to get eyeballs.  Netflix could have adapted that book into a movie.

Because that book has a coherent and engaging plot that people have loved for decades.

Unlike -- and I stress again -- unlike the fanfiction that Netflix made.

Netflix had sugar to put in the bag.  But Netflix put the sawdust in the bag anyway.

And I really don't understand why they would.

Why not just adapt for us the book you paid to adapt?

I first noticed this with the Hobbit, which is arguably a drastically more egregious case of paying huge sums of money for the rights to an internationally beloved movie with a huge and autistic fanbase and then adapting the writers' fanfic instead.

Just put the sugar in the bag.  Just adapt the movie you paid for.  Everyone will thank you for it.  Even the shareholders.  Especially the shareholders.

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Wheel of Time and the Well-Tempered Plot Device

Sometime back in 2011, I was handed a complete (used!) set of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time Series from a friend who saw me reading A Song of Ice and Fire.  For several years it sat on my office desk, because I got caught up in other writers.  Then it sat on my bookshelf for a few years as I got caught up in work and research, before I finally picked up the Eye of the World and decided to read it last fall.

With a TV adaptation proposed to come out sometime in the near future, I figured now was as good a time as any for a post about it.

About midway into reading Eye of the World, I noticed a particular phrase being used over and over to explain bizarre occurrences and decisions.  I understood what the phrase means, but its application was pretty arbitrary and inconsistent.  But then I made a kind of mental dictionary, and then the book began to actually make more sense.  Whenever you see the following words in Eye of the World, replace them with

The Pattern --> The Plot

The Wheel --> Robert Jordan

Weaves --> Writes

For instance: Why is this gleeman we just met and know nothing about supposed to accompany us on this dangerous voyage we're not supposed to trust anyone to know about?  Is it because the Wheel Weaves the Pattern as it wills?  No!  It's because Robert Jordan is Writing the Plot as he wills.  This is all part of the Plot.

After I made this discovery (and it wasn't until midway into the book when I made it), it became almost impossible to take the book seriously.  I did keep reading.  And I actually enjoyed it.  Or I enjoyed most of it.  But I kept snickering every single time the Aes Sedai woman spoke, because she was constantly using this line to explain the plot developments.

This idea of word-substitution isn't original to me.  There is a famous article entitled "The Well-Tempered Plot Device," originally published in the Ansible back in 1986 (before Wheel of Time) that criticized many fantasy plots as overly-reliant on plot devices such as "plot coupons" and "plot tokens."  The primary diagnostic of an overdone plot device, according to the article, is if it can be replaced with "the Plot" and not make any difference.  One famous example is "the Force" from Star Wars.  Try watching the first movie, and mentally replacing "Force" with "Plot."  The movie won't change very much, and might actually make more sense.

The world of Wheel of Time felt very real to me, while I was reading.  I felt like I was in streets of medieval towns and staying inside medieval taverns and sleeping in hedgerows along old dusty roads.    But any time something happened, we were told by the characters that it happened that way because Robert Jordan wrote it that way.  And that wasn't very fun.

I have all ten or eleven of them on my bookshelf, unread, and they will probably stay that way.  But this is not the reason why I haven't read the other books.

The reason why I haven't read the other books is that the ending to Eye of the World was a total asspull.  It was the kind of ending where the author realized the main character is in a situation where the main character would die, but the main character can't die, so the author causes something completely unexplained and unexpected to occur to rescue the main character in service of the Plot.  Or, as the Aes Sedai would put it, the Wheel Weaves the Fabric as it wills.  The main character just suddenly and without explanation (before or after) manifests magical powers to defeat the BBEG, which leaves the ending feeling very unearned; that, or leaves the rest of the story feeling very pointless.

Another way to put things is that the ending violates Sanderson's First Law.  Which is ironic since Sanderson wrote several of the WoT books.  Magic I didn't understand or even know existed suddenly came up and resolved the entire conflict of the book in about two pages.  Everything before about the characters and their hardships didn't mean anything because unexplained magic solves the story at the end,

If you read the books in high school and loved them, then I get it.  A lot of my friends did, too.  I came to them as a full-grown adult man, and they just didn't do it for me.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

JK Rowling and Sanderson's 3rd Law

The Harry Potter books succeeded wildly, beyond anyone's imagination.  JK Rowling is the top-selling author of all time.  Not just in fantasy.  Period.  I believe the series did so well largely because of the strength of the characters and their relationships.  Modern people want friendships like we see in Harry Potter and Stranger Things.  So there's a lesson to potential authors. The characters and friendships of Harry Potter are incredible, and I can understand why so many people would love the stories on that basis.

Harry Potter succeeded because of its characters and relationships.  But Harry Potter did not succeed because of its imagination.

I've spoken in depth in the past about why I don't like the Harry Potter books.  All of it can be boiled down to a single statement:

The characters of Harry Potter are unaware of their own universe.

But I stumbled on a more authoritative way to say this, in terms of Brandon Sanderson and his "laws of magic."

The first law is fairly well-known: In order to use magic to resolve conflict in a satisfying way, you need it to be understood.  The magic of Harry Potter is very understandable, so that isn't an issue.  You always know what Alohamora is going to do.

The second law is: the limitations are more interesting than abilities.  The magic in Harry Potter does have concrete limitations, which does create interesting conflicts.  You can't use the time turners to change the past, as an example.  So that isn't an issue.

Brandon Sanderson's 3rd Law has been stated most simply:

Everything is connected to everything else.

This is where Harry Potter fails as a series.  It fails to explore the connections that should exist within the world.  It doesn't consider the deeper ramifications of dark lords with million-person-wide global secrets or ten-year-olds with the ability to kill at will.  Many of the characters in Harry Potter seem to temporarily forget that magic exists and don't use it for some crucial purpose, or are surprised when someone else uses it.

Consider briefly just some of the means of transportation within the Wizarding World of England:
  • In the Wizarding World, everyone is able to get on a broom and fly.  This is already an extremely effective form of transportation, far more effective than ground transportation.
  • In the Wizarding World, there is a special train with its own rail to carry students to and from Hogwarts, because they aren't allowed to fly there.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists at least one flying car that you aren't allowed to fly, or at least not to Hogwarts.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists at least one flying motorcycle that you don't even have to use magic to fly on.  You are allowed to fly this, even to and from Hogwarts.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists a magic powder that allows you to instantaneously teleport between fireplaces anywhere in the world by speaking the name of the desired location.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists a double-decker bus that drives around late at night just in case a wizard gets lost and doesn't have a way home.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists a spell to turn any mundane object at all into a transportation key that instantaneously teleports you to anywhere in the world.  This is a different spell from the fireplace one.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists an old wooden boat that travels underwater.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exist carriages drawn by invisible death horses.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists a spell that instantaneously teleports you (and a friend) to anywhere in the world, without a mundane object or a fireplace.  This is a different instantaneous teleportation spell from the other two.
Now, I can understand how it might be that all of these might exist: Wizards find better methods over time.  I can't understand how it is that all of these are commonly used at the same time.

This is a failure to consider the connections between one kind of magical transportation over here, and another kind of magical transportation over here.  The lack of connections between the elements of the world make the world flat and unbelievable.

One of my strongest points about the flat worldbuilding is the Wizarding economy, which is completely one-dimensional.  You either work for the government, or you teach at Hogwarts.  Or you pretend to be a chair and squat in a Muggle home.  Those are basically the only jobs.  However, there are all kinds of implications that the existence of magic and magical goods should be having on the economy.  Hermione goes to work at the Ministry of Magic doing something with elf rights, when Hermione could have gotten in to Oxford and become top-of-her-field in any subject she wanted to.  There are people who know how to fly and transmute matter and cast illusions, and they work retail hours stocking books in a magical bookstore.  Wizards just don't do anything, and don't interact with the real world.  There is no connection between one an the other.  And yet we frequently see wizards connecting with the real world.

Hogwarts itself is flat.  There are four houses.  There are four houses because traditional boarding schools have four houses.  One house is good, the other house is evil.  The other house is... I dunno, really smart, and then the last house is...  um... all the rest!  We just need four houses.  All the rest of Hogwarts outside of Harry, his friends and his enemies remains essentially a Potemkin Village.  Hermione should be in Ravenclaw and Neville should be in Hufflepuff, except those are the good guys, so they aren't.Slytherins are evil, Griffindors are good, everyone else is whatever.  The evil professors are Slytherin, the evil students are Slytherin, the evil founder is Slytherin, the evil dark lord is the heir of Slytherin, the evil wizards who help the dark lord are Slytherin.  All of this is to reinforce that Draco = Slytherin = eath Eater = Voldemort = Bad.  Even Dolores Umbridge, the goody-two-shoes who should fit right in at Griffindor, later joins the Death Eaters, and while at Hogwarts uses Draco and his goons -- who are known to be trouble makers that start fights -- to act as hallway patrol.

It doesn't make any sense, because the implications and connections of the school and its four houses were never truly worked out.  Griffindors just are good, Slytherins just are bad, and Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff just are.

The first book can essentially be summed up as "the most powerful wizards in the world continually forget that magic exists."  The most precious treasure in the world, being sought after by a powerful murderous dark wizard, is guarded at least in part by a simple locked door.  There exists a spell, Alohamora, that can unlock doors, and there exist doors that cannot be unlocked by Alohamora.  But the wizards protecting the philosopher's stone only did not use such a door to guard the entrance to the stone.  They did use such a door to guard the stone, just not at the entrance, and then placed the key to the only unopenable door in the same room as the unopenable door, along with a broom to chase it down.  Two of the guards for the treasure are living creatures which can immediately and even effortlessly be killed with the death spell.  The other puzzles can largely be flown over if only you had a broom, and you do have a broom because we left one in the room back there (where we also left the key to the only door you can't unlock with magic).

The denouement of Philosopher's Stone can basically be summarized as the most powerful and evil wizard in the world tries to hold down a 10-year-old boy with his hands because he forgot there are spells that do it better, and decides to perish in his insistence on not using magic to defeat his nemesis.

The connections between the magic being used to defend the Philosopher's Stone, and the magic we know exists in the world, were never formed.

The issues continue.  The characters routinely behave in ways that would only make sense if they did not know that they lived in a world where magic worked.

All of this to say, I now know how to articulate my main complaint against Harry Potter, and have the authority of Brandon Sanderson's name to back me up.  The Harry Potter books violate Sanderson's 3rd Law of Magic.  They fail to contemplate the way that everything is connected to everything else.  They fail to make the connections across the different spells, across the different houses, across the broader world.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Sagan's Anti-Dragon

In my garage I have an imaginary dragon.  It's not real.  Its just imaginary.  It's a dragon made entirely of the good thoughts and happy feelings of people who like to think there's a dragon out there, somewhere, watching over them.  But dragons aren't real, and neither is the dragon in my garage.

I tell you this, and you tell me that the dragon isn't imaginary.  You insist it's a real dragon that is really in my garage.  So I take you to my garage to show you that it's only imaginary.

We both immediately notice that the dragon is visible.  You tell me that you can see it, and ask if I can see it.  I can see it.  And it's interesting that I'm seeing the dragon, and certainly counts for something.

But why would I leap to the conclusion that because I'm seeing a dragon, it means there is a dragon in my garage?  It's probably mechatronic.  Perhaps I'm hallucinating?  Perhaps it's a hologram or some other trick of light?  Maybe there's an advanced alien species using science I don't understand to make it look like there's a dragon.  Or maybe this is a purely natural phenomenon that I don't understand.  There's no reason, just yet, to leap to the conclusion that this is a real dragon, especially when there are other possible explanations.

We both also notice that the dragon is roaring at us and making noise.  We both hear it, and we report the same sounds at the same times.

But we can't conclude, just form this, that therefore there is a dragon roaring in my garage.  It's likely just a recording of a dragon being played on speakers.  It may be sounds from tectonic plates underground, or the planks of the house moving.  We may just be hallucinating.  Or maybe it's a race of powerful aliens trying to trick us into thinking that there is a dragon there.  We can rule any of those things out, and a dragon is the least likely possibility.  So there's no reason to jump to the dragon explanation just yet, especially when there are other possible explanations.

You approach the dragon, and stick out your hand, and you can actually touch it.  The dragon is solid and tangible.  I can touch it, too.  This is certainly an interesting fact, that I can apparently touch the dragon, and it counts for something.

But I explain to you, just because I can touch the dragon doesn't mean there's a dragon there.  It could just be mechatronics.  It might be a tactile hallucination or some other trick on my senses.  It might be advanced technology from an alien species halting my hand, or it might be some completely natural phenomenon that we don't understand yet making it seem like there is a dragon there.  There's no reason, just yet, to leap to the conclusion that this is a real dragon, especially when there are other possible explanations.

You say, okay, maybe we can't trust our own senses.  So you get some heat-vision goggles and we look through them, and sure enough, there's the heat-imprint of a dragon.  And this is also interesting, and it counts for something.

But there's no reason to leap to the conclusion that just because we see the heat imprint of a dragon, that therefore there is a real dragon.  It's more likely that this is a malfunction of the device in question, or some natural effect of heat convection patterns we don't understand, or powerful aliens just playing tricks on us.  We can't rule any of these things out.  It would be irrational at this point to conclude that there is a real dragon there in my garage, especially when there are other possible explanations.

The dragon, or at least the apparent appearance of a dragon, then breathes fire.  And things in the blast actually burn, or melt, or catch fire.  My own eyebrows get singed.  And this is an interesting thing, and it counts for something.  I'm certainly curious about this apparent blast of fire.

But I'm still not willing to accept your explanation for why it happened.  You have to separate what happened from the explanation we give for it.  And I don't think we can conclude it must have been a dragon.

It's much more likely that I'm hallucinating this, than that any such creature as a dragon exists, much less exists in my garage.  It's possible we're seeing a purely natural phenomenon occurring that we don't yet understand (strange fires and lights happen all the time in nature), it's possible there's some gas leak in the garage that suddenly caught fire, or it's even possible that an advanced race of aliens is playing tricks on us.  There's no way to conclude, resolutely, that what we're seeing is a dragon, especially when there are other possible explanations.

So you ask me, what would it take to convince me that the imaginary dragon in my garage is a real dragon?  What level of evidence would I accept for the dragon?

And I respond that I don't know.  I don't know what level of evidence I would accept.  A dragon is an imaginary animal, and is the least likely explanation for my apparent observation of a dragon in my garage.  I would rather believe in pretty much any other explanation before believing in a dragon.

Surely the dragon knows what evidence I would accept, and the dragon hasn't bothered giving me that evidence yet.  It must not care.

Of course, it's possible the dragon does know the level of evidence I would accept, and that there is precisely zero evidence I would accept as proof of a dragon in my garage.  Just because I don't know what evidence I would accept, doesn't mean that I would actually accept any evidence for the dragon's existence.

And so you have to ask me:  What is the difference between a visible, audible, tangible, heat-radiating, fire-breathing imaginary dragon, and a real dragon sitting in your garage?

And so for atheists: what level of evidence would you accept for God?  Because even when Christians offer admittedly hyperbolic, hypothetical scenarios like booming bass voices from the clouds calling out your name or people's decapitated heads reattaching to their necks, many atheist thinkers still say that it wouldn't convince you in the existence of the divine.  Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Matt Dillahunty, Michael Shermer, and others have all made public statements to this effect.

But how is that different from insisting the dragon in my garage is imaginary?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Shaggydog Theory: Why George R. R. Martin Doesn't Want to Finish his Song of Ice and Fire Series

Seven years ago, the last update to the legendary A Song of Ice and Fire series came available, the fifth book A Dance with Dragons.  This book was somewhat disappointing to fans of the series.  The books failed to have any of the juicy details readers actually wanted, being not-so-affectionately labeled "Traveling Places and Administrative Tasks: The Book".  The book was also a major disappointment because it came out over five years after the previous book, A Feast For Crows, released in 2005, despite the promise of Martin that the fifth book would be released speedily since he had already written most of it when he divided the upcoming fourth novel into two separate novels.

And then the fourth book came out five years after the book before it, and was also something of a disappointment.  While the third book had betrayals and kingdom-spanning adventures for the future of the continent, the Feast was much slower-paced and almost seems a tangent compared to the promise of the original three books. Almost none of the plot lines were picked up, meaning it was over a decade, when Dragons was released, that fans got to go back to the characters they last read about in 2000 when A Storm of Swords was released.

In the intervening years, Ol' Georgie has been quite busy.... just not busy with anything to do with the book series that has sold millions of copies and was made into the most-pirated television series in history.  Martin has been instead going on tours and writing all kinds of other stories.  Some are tangentially related to the world of Westeros, others not so much.

In 2018, almost two decades since the end of the third book with all of its promise, with Martin writing stories about gambling dragons in casinos or whatever, I think it is pretty patently obvious to everyone: George Martin does not want to finish writing his series of books.

I repeat: George Martin does not want to finish writing A Song of Ice and Fire.

He told the ending to the HBO series producers and is, apparently, content to let them have the final word on his story.

While it's obvious from his behavior and publication history that Martin doesn't want to finish the series, it's probably baffling to fans why an author who has been catapulted to fame and riches by a book series would just abandon it, especially right before the central plot struggles.

I have a theory as to why.  I call it the Shaggydog Theory.  The theory is most simply stated:

The name of Rickon's wolf is foreshadowing.

Rickon's wolf is named Shaggydog,  For those unaware, a Shaggy Dog Story is a kind of anti-joke, whose humor is in the subversion of the usual comedy format.  In a shaggy dog joke, the teller relates a very long account, assumed by the listener to be a build-up to an eventual punchline.  As the build-up stretches on and on and on, the listener expects a better and better delivery.  Until, at the end, the joke ends in some sort of stupid pun, or worse, a quick and unhumorous resolution.  The listener is left confused, only able to ask "Wait, what?  That's it?"  To those in on the joke, the confused and aggravated response of the mark is the joke.

One popular example of a shaggy dog joke is about a young man who gets insulted by a rodeo clown and made to look like a fool.  To seek revenge, he decides to go to college and studies literature, hoping to learn enough wit to retaliate the next time he's publicly embarrassed.  The story goes on with the young man studying witty retorts in graduate school, earning a PhD in the subject, becoming a world expert on witty retorts, even going on a book tour on late night TV.  Properly told, the build-up can stretch on for almost half-an-hour.  A skilled teller will even insert extra padding, about the expert having martial problems or going on a trip to the pyramids to find papyri or his father contracting cancer -- anything to waste more time and magnify expectations for the supposed payoff.  Then at last, at the end, the expert in witicisms returns to the same circus and gets insulted by the same rodeo clown, and the whole stadium goes deathly silent, waiting to hear how the world's expert will respond.  The real life listeners are also waiting to hear how the various elements of the long buildup are going to connect into some sort of magnificent punchline.  So the man stands up, points at his insulter, and says "F you, clown."

I think A Song of Ice and Fire is a shaggy dog story.

I think Martin knows the ending, and has had it planned since the beginning.  The ending to the series is something intentionally and infuriatingly anticlimactic.  Such as: the Others simply invade and kill everyone, despite all the efforts of the protagonists over seven books.  Something equally as anticlimactic as that.  As originally intended, the ending was supposed to thwart reader expectations about what an epic fantasy was, thinking the epic size would lead to an epic payoff.  Now that the series has become internationally famous, he doesn't want to write the ending he had planned, and he doesn't know how else to end the series.  Martin is intentionally stalling to avoid the backlash the true ending will  get, and he's not going to finish the books. in his lifetie

So that's the theory.  But what's the evidence for it?

Firstly, Martin's own testimony that A Song of Ice and Fire is inspired by and based on the other series, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, by Tad Williams.  Anyone who has read MST knows this already, but it might surprise fans of the HBO series, or readers less into fantasy, to know that the world of Westeros is almost entirely borrowed from Osten Ard of MST.  The history, the characters, the central conflict of the world, the in-fighting between brothers for the kingdom, the exiled elven-like creatures who live in the northern woods -- all of it is from Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.

If so much of ASOIAF is borrowed from MST, including the central conflict between humanity to the south and the Others to the north, it stands to reason that the resolution of the conflict is also borrowed.

Now, MST does not have an anticlimactic ending.  But it has an ending that throws a wrench into the usual expectations of epic fantasy.  (I'm being deliberately vague because I won't want to spoil the series -- if you read the books, then you will understand where I'm going)

I think Martin intended an ending similar, but different, to the ending of MST.  An ending that subverts our expectations, but does so by dashing all of our hopes to pieces.  I think ASOIAF has the ending that Williams would have given to his series if he had been more willing to enrage his audience.

But what about textual evidence?  Is there anything in the series that would lead us to suspect that Martin intends to build up our hopes and then dash them to pieces?

I don't even really need to ask that, do I?

But here are a few examples:

1. Ned Stark, who we are led to believe is the main protagonist, dying almost halfway through the first book.

2. Robb Stark, who we are led to believe is the new main protagonist out to avenge his father, dying almost halfway through the third book.

3. Renly Baratheon, out to avenge his own brother, raising an army to usurp the mad boy-king Joffrey, only to be unceremoniously killed in his tent.

4. Bran Stark, who overheard the plot of Cersei and Jaime in the tower, forgetting everything and never remembering any of it, ever.  Not even suddenly recalling the plans just in the nick of time.

5. The Viper, fully channeling Inigo Montoya, suddenly being crushed to death at the very end of his fight against the Mountain, technically losing and thereby condemning Tyrion to death.

6. Arya Stark, losing her dire wolf but hearing hints of it in the countryside, and then never, ever finding it again.

7. The Brotherhood without Banners, the only noble, decent people on the entire continent,  fighting with the spirit of Robin Hood to right the wrongs of the world, becoming just a bunch of thugs who go around killing people for no reason.

I could go on.  So many of the threads in the story are clearly echoing tropes, playing on expectations.  We almost fill-in the stories ourselves before they're over, then suddenly they go nowhere and are all abruptly cut short by reality.

This all is Martin preparing us for the ending.

Do you remember where you were when you read the Red Wedding?

I do.  I was in my old room in my parents' old home.  And I was furious.  I threw the book across the room.  I cursed.  I questioned why I was even reading it.  I almost just gave up on the series.

But it was a small detail that suddenly crept into my memory that made me continue going.  The little hint Danaerys sees in the House of the Undying.  Martin was planning the Red Wedding since at least the second book.  It was set up.  He had primed his audience to expect it, and had left little hints in the text that it was going to happen.

All of these dead-end plot threads and frustrations and dead characters and losing heroes are all training, so that at the end of the story, when we read the anticlimactic ending with Dany and Jon simply dying and the Others overrunning the continent in eternal winter, we will close the book and not be able to say that we weren't warned about it.  "Of course it ended that way," we'll eventually say.  It will still hurt, and we'll still be pissed we wasted 20 years following these stupid books and rereading them every five years when new ones come out, but we won't be able to say we had any right to expect anything other than what we got.  And in a book series filled with epic stories and quests that ultimately fail and lead nowhere, we'll look back and see it, right in front of our faces the whole time, the name of Rickon's wolf: shaggy dog.

Except that the series became extremely popular.  Martin's reimagining of fantasy was his first foray into the genre, and he probably wasn't expecting the reception he got.  His books became an international bestseller, falling into the fantasy canon alongside Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Earthsea, Harry Potter, Lovecraft, Conan the Barbarian, or Wheel of Time.

Writing the planned ending will, possibly, destroy the esteemed position of his book.

This is why he is willing to let someone else finish his grande opus: because it is not really his grande opus.  It is instead his attempt to readapt a different series to have a  grittier, more subversive ending that will definitely piss off all of his readers.  Best leave it to Hollywood to jam a traditional, boring, happy ending into it.

I think Martin's plan is to compile notes and wait until he dies so that someone else can pick up the story and finish it the way he originally intended, without Martin having to live through the backlash that will come from it.  The readers will be disappointed by this ending.  For most, though, the ending of the TV series will be the only ending to the series, and I expect that ending to be much more upbeat and typical.

So that's my theory.  The books are a shaggy dog story, and Rickon's wolf is there as foreshadowing of it.